In our uncertain and unpredictable world, there are few things we can rely on. But Thailand’s military, reassuringly, always tends to behave in accordance with a few simple and easy-to-understand rules.
For one thing, we can generally assume with a high degree of certainty that at any time, some group of disgruntled and ambitious Thai military officers is plotting a coup. In the 80 years since Thailand abolished absolute monarchy and began tentative steps towards democracy, the military has launched 18 coups — some successful, some not. The military is far less enthusiastic when it comes to inconvenient distractions like having to defend the country from external threats. As Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds, wrote in a 2002 article:
[Thailand’s] military is first and foremost an armed bureaucracy, which does not fight wars. Instead, military officers have preferred to devote their energies to the more interesting and satisfying professions of business and politics. Their core businesses have been smuggling, logging, and profiting from the country’s natural resources.
Such is the enthusiasm for coups among the country’s armed forces that they have even been known to launch a military takeover of a government they were already in charge of — in 1971 Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn launched a coup despite the fact he was the prime minister. The military likes to claim that its fondness for coups shows how supportive it is of democracy. As Federico Ferrara, assistant professor of politics at the City University of Hong Kong, writes in Thailand Unhinged: The Death of Thai-Style Democracy:
Thailand. of course, has a long history of “democratic” coups d’etat — having famously drifted in and out of military dictatorship ever since a group of mostly young, foreign-educated military officers and high-ranking civil servants overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932.
The most recent coup, in September 2006, installed a government widely regarded as a total disaster. As things went from bad to worse, secret U.S. embassy cables obtained by WikiLeaks and seen by Reuters show that some members of the military were keen to launch a “re-coup” against their own administration, in a reprise of the bizarre events of 1971. In a January 2007 cable, Ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce comments:
Although a coup against one’s own government sounds ridiculous, this has happened here before: elected prime minister Thanom launched a coup against his own government in 1971. Thanom dissolved Parliament, banned political parties and strengthened military rule until he was forced to flee the country two years later in the wake of violent protests.
As David Streckfuss makes clear in his study Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse Majesté, coups are not the exception in Thailand – the state of exception has become the norm:
The cycle in Thailand has become so familiar it seems normal: a coup is staged, the constitution is abolished, coup makers grant themselves an amnesty, a new constitution is drafted, new elections are held, the newly-elected government is perceived as increasingly corrupt, a crisis ensues; the next coup is staged, and so on.
A second rule of thumb the Thai military faithfully tends to obey is that the more they deny a coup is on the way, the more worried the current government should be. In another U.S. embassy cable from July 2006, U.S. Ambassador Boyce reports on a meeting with Thai army commander General Sonthi Boonyarataglin:
Sonthi stated that there is no intention, whatsoever, for military involvement in the current crisis.
In a comment at the end of the cable, Boyce adds:
As the local press ratchets up new rumors of coup plotting, it is useful to hear the Army chief state in no uncertain terms that the military is not planning on coming off the bench. We take him at face value; that said, one can never completely rule out the potential for military intervention in Thailand.
Two months later, General Sonthi led a bloodless coup that overthrew the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
A third rule is that when a large number of Thailand’s most senior military brass hold a special news conference to make an announcement, whatever they say should be regarded as likely to be total nonsense.
Take, for example, the February 2010 news conference in which then-army chief General Anupong Paochinda, flanked by a large number of top military men, tried to claim that the GT200 explosive detector was a marvellously effective device.
The GT200 was a scam, a useless lump of plastic with no electrical or mechanical parts which a rogue British company sold to gullible security forces around the world, usually with the help of hefty procurement bribes. Yet even after the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had conducted tests which found the device completely worthless, the embarrassed Thai military refused to admit it had been duped. Overwhelming scientific evidence that the devices were totally unable to detect explosives was no reason to stop using them, Anupong insisted:
I understand the scientific tests, but what the Army is trying to say is the device operators on the ground can use them effectively. This may not be explained scientifically, but I’m telling the truth.
Even the Bangkok Post, a staunch supporter of the Thai establishment in recent years, was exasperated:
It has been officially confirmed: the GT200 is a con, a fraud, a crime. The so-called bomb detector has become the most expensive dowsing rod ever — costing the hard-working Thai taxpayer some 800 million baht. Many must have become rich from this GT200 scam. Many others must have been killed, injured, disabled, or arrested because of its inaccuracies.
Yet the military, the biggest buyer of the GT200 device, refuses to accept the facts for fear of losing face. Instead of immediately stopping its use to save lives, the military bigwigs have cold-heartedly ordered troops in the restive South to continue using the bogus device, even though tests conducted by the Science and Technology Ministry have proven beyond any doubt that the device is ineffective.
Another of the claims recently championed by the military is that – despite firing up to 117,923 bullets including 2,500 sniper rounds – the Thai army did not kill or injure a single person during its violent crackdown on Red Shirt protesters who occupied central Bangkok in April and May last year. It is clear that Thai military statements are something of a contra-indicator.
For all these reasons, when The Nation newspaper, a reliably pliant mouthpiece for the ruling establishment, has a giant front-page headline proclaiming “NO COUP”, then alarm bells start to ring:
In an unprecedented move, top commanders came out yesterday to declare there would definitely be no military overthrow of the government.
One can only imagine how reassured Prime Minister Abhisit must be by such news. It is also heartening to see the military pledging to abide by the constitution – Thailand has managed the improbable feat of having 17 constitutions since 1932, largely because coup-installed military governments have a habit of repeatedly tearing up the old charter and sponsoring a brand new and improved one:
“We ask you not to believe the rumours that soldiers will stage a coup. The Thai Armed Forces strictly abide by the Constitution under constitutional monarchy. Soldiers will not get involved in any political affairs,” supreme commander General Songkitti Jaggabatara told a news conference together with the chiefs of the three armed branches.
So it’s official – soldiers will not get involved in any political affairs. And the GT200 works like a dream. And the military didn’t harm a single soul in April and May last year.
“I insist that all the armed-force commanders will not get involved. The public can be assured that the military does not interfere with politics. We know our duty – what to do and not to do. Any unit that makes a force movement without orders will be regarded as committing treason,” he said.
“There have been such rumours from time to time over the past four to five years. Some people spread the rumours although they knew nothing or little about it. But when someone well informed denied the rumours, people were not convinced.”
In fairness, one reason people may not have been convinced by denials of coup rumours five years ago was that shortly afterwards, the military launched a coup — a point Songkitti appears not to have grasped.
Prime Minister Abhisit says he will go to the polls in July, and appears confident that his Democrat Party will win enough seats to once again form a coalition government. And he is probably right: the Puea Thai party backed by his nemesis Thaksin Shinawatra is rudderless and divided, and the playing field is anything but level.
But many of Abhisit’s former allies in the military and the ultra-right-wing royalist Yellow Shirt movement have an aversion to democracy and don’t see the need for elections at all. After all, there is always the risk that Puea Thai could pull off a shock victory, and powerful figures in Thailand’s establishment remain implacably opposed to a pro-Thaksin party ever holding power again.
As Shawn Crispin wrote in his Asia Times column a couple of months ago:
the once coherent storylines that have defined Thailand’s six-year-old political conflict are fast fragmenting as establishment forces once united against Thaksin now compete to steer the country’s future political direction. That’s most visibly apparent with the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group, whose once potent street protests ushered Thaksin’s 2006 military ouster and the collapse of two successive Thaksin-aligned governments in 2008 by occupying Government House and Bangkok’s international airports.
Unlike much of the military brass, Yellow Shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul cannot be accused of concealing his genuine views:
If the election is allowed to go ahead, we will see a return of the beasts from hell.
Sondhi wants democracy to be scrapped, with the king appointing a prime minister and cabinet instead to clean up Thai politics. His message to Thai voters? Don’t vote.
It has been proven that no political parties have the public interest in mind. Their ultimate goal is to gain money and power. That’s why the PAD leaders have resolved that we will campaign for people all over the country to give no votes.
The forces opposed to democracy may not need to resort to a coup, even in the event that elections go ahead and Abhisit’s gamble backfires. They remain wounded by the spectacular ineptitude of the administration installed by the 2006 putsch, which signally failed to achieve any of the coup-makers’ long-term goals. And since then, the establishment has learned the benefits of judicial intervention as a means of stage-managing Thai politics – it was the courts, rather than a coup, that brought down the last pro-Thaksin government, and this is a strategy the establishment will not hesitate to use again if necessary.
But the more Thailand’s generals insist a coup is out of the question, the more likely it is they are actively considering one, at least as a contingency plan if events do not go their way. The fact the 2006 coup administration was pitifully poor is unlikely to have put the military off the idea of holding another putsch – we can’t assume they learned any lessons, given their failure to learn from all the previous coups they launched (not to mention that many of them seemed to think the solution to the shortcomings of the last coup administration was — of all things — a “re-coup”). It would be very rash to bet against Thailand’s military once again seeking to seize power sometime in the next few years.
And yet there is at least some cause for hope that if there is another coup, it may be Thailand’s last.
Given their insularity, Thailand’s generals are probably unaware of how much the world has changed since they overthrew Thaksin in 2006, and since they repeatedly ordered their troops to fire into crowds of protesters during the clashes in Bangkok last year. And given their naive belief in the uniqueness of Thailand, they are probably unaware also of the degree to which changes in the world beyond their borders will profoundly affect Thailand too.
But in the space of just a few months, we have seen pro-democracy protesters overthrowing deeply entrenched and corrupt regimes in Egypt and Tunisia after those countries’ militaries refused to fire on their own people. In February, Robert Fisk reported in the Independent on the critical moment when Egypt’s military chose to ignore the orders of elderly dictator Hosni Mubarak to crush the Cairo protests by force:
Last night, a military officer guarding the tens of thousands celebrating in Cairo threw down his rifle and joined the demonstrators, yet another sign of the ordinary Egyptian soldier’s growing sympathy for the democracy demonstrators.
We had witnessed many similar sentiments from the army over the past two weeks. But the critical moment came on the evening of 30 January when, it is now clear, Mubarak ordered the Egyptian Third Army to crush the demonstrators in Tahrir Square with their tanks after flying F-16 fighter bombers at low level over the protesters. Many of the senior tank commanders could be seen tearing off their headsets – over which they had received the fatal orders – to use their mobile phones. They were, it now transpires, calling their own military families for advice. Fathers who had spent their lives serving the Egyptian army told their sons to disobey, that they must never kill their own people.
In Libya and in Yemen, autocrats have sought to stay in power by ordering the mass murder of those who oppose them. But both Libya’s ludicrous Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh have found they can no longer massacre their citizens with impunity and expect the international community to turn a blind eye. Global public opinion will not stand for it any more, and Western governments are scrambling to disassociate themselves from tyrants they had long tolerated.
Damaging as Thailand’s prolonged political crisis has been, it has brought at least one great benefit to the country: almost everybody, however poor they may be and however remote from the big cities, has developed a political consciousness. As James Stent argues in his superb Thoughts on Thailand’s Turmoil:
Contrary to Yellow shirt claims that the Red Shirts are uneducated and manipulated, in my conversations with farmers, innumerable taxi drivers (almost all of whom come from villages in the northeast), my Bangkok housekeeper (every foreigner’s favorite source of insight into Red Shirt political thinking!), and a variety of other interlocutors, I find that the Red Shirts and their sympathizers are articulate and have clear ideas as to what is wrong with the country and with the Democratic Party government led by Abhisit. While discussing to a certain extent economic issues (my village in Chiang Rai is fixated on crop prices, and feels that Thaksin would be aware of these issues in a way that Abhisit is not), most of them dwell primarily on resentment of the amat, on double standards, and on the fact that their vote has been nullified by military coup, court decisions, and political backroom dealing. Despite their slogans, they do not necessarily have a sophisticated understanding of democracy, but they do have a keen sense of exactly how their political rights as citizens have been trampled upon, resulting in the favoring of the rich and powerful by government.
In this environment, if the armed forces launch yet another coup in Thailand, it is likely to meet unprecedentedly fierce and widespread resistance, of a scale far greater than the movements opposing military dictatorship in 1992, 1976 and 1973, and indeed far greater than the mass Red Shirt protests of 2010.
How could the military respond to such resistance? It cannot do nothing – that would clearly show that Thailand’s armed forces have become impotent in their ability to impose their rule on the country. Yet if the military opens fire on its own people – as it has done with few qualms so often before – it will do so in a world in which global public opinion no longer accepts the massacre of those standing up for democracy, and in which the old justifications for authoritarianism have been shown to be bankrupt and built on lies. There can be no victory in such a strategy now.
So if Thailand’s military chooses once again to subvert democracy and tries again to impose its rule on the country’s people, it cannot succeed. It will lose.
The only question is how much blood is spilled before the generals realise the inevitable, and before Thailand finally says, truthfully this time: Never again.