Report: Thailand’s Military Casts Shadow over Election

One year ago, the Royal Thai Government massacred ninety-one people to avoid an early election it feared it might lose. Finally, the general elections for which dozens of Red Shirts gave their lives are on track to take place in June or July 2011. While it is hoped that the elections will be free of outright fraud and ballot stuffing, the competitiveness and fairness of the process are being undermined in many other ways.

The upcoming elections will take place in a context of intimidation and repression, coupled with the continuing efforts by most of the institutions of the Thai state to secure a victory for the Democrat Party. Aside from competing against a hobbled opposition under rules designed to artificially boost its seat share, the Democrat Party will once again avail itself of the assistance of the military, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the rest of the establishment. These institutions stand ready to commit whatever money, administrative resources, and television airtime might be necessary to haul the otherwise unelectable Mark Abhisit Vejjajiva over the hump.

Read the full version of this new report over on the Thai blog.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, General PrayuthChanocha, promised the Thai public that the military will observe apolicy of strict neutrality in the 2011 general elections. Given theresources that Thailand’s armed forces have expended since 2006 to steervoters into returning the desired election results, overthrow electedgovernments it did not consider worthy of its support, and impose itsown proxies on a recalcitrant electorate, there is no chance that thegenerals will stay on the sidelines. Indeed, just as in the 2007elections, the Royal Thai Army has its own candidate for Prime Minister –Mark Abhisit Vejjajiva. Whereas their efforts failed to save theDemocrat Party from defeat in 2007, this time Thailand’s armed forcesare determined to stop at nothing to manufacture a legislative majorityon behalf of Mark Abhisit. Not only is the dominant role that themilitary has managed to assert over Thailand’s political system at stakein these elections; the prospect that an opposition victory mightresult in the investigation and prosecution of senior generals for theirrole in the massacre of Red Shirt protesters in April and May 2010 hasraised the stakes even further. For Thailand’s armed forces, defeat isnot an option in the 2011 general elections.

A few months ago, Mark Abhisit made the imaginative claim that theThai military remains under civilian control.1 Considering that he oweshis job to the generals, the Prime Minister knows better. In fact, withthe choice of Mark Abhisit as its frontman, the Royal Thai Army hasshown that it has learned the lessons of 1992, when General SuchindaKraprayoon’s insistence on personally serving as Prime Ministertriggered massive protests in Bangkok, complete with a massacre ofunarmed protesters. To avoid a repeat of that debacle, Mark Abhisit’surbane demeanor and patrician pedigree are the ideal cover for themilitary’s continued dominance of Thailand’s political life. Beyond thewindow-dressing, however, the reality is that the Thai military hasalmost never been under civilian control. What is worse, the generalshave more power today than they have had in decades.

Having staged more coups than any modern army, the Thai military’sviews still figure into every political calculus. And while its budgethas more than doubled since the 2006 coup, the events of April and Mayhave shown that its competence and commitment to democratic values arebeyond the pale of analysis. Unlike his predecessor, General PrayuthChan-ocha finds it impossible to resist the temptation of reminding thepublic that he is in charge. Almost every day, the public is treated tohis windbaggery on a range of topics lying well beyond his narrowconstitutional authority and still more limited intellect. Themilitary’s handling of the border dispute with Cambodia, moreover, hasoffered ample evidence for the proposition that the generals take noorders from civilians. Embarrassingly, General Prayuth and DefenseMinister Prawit Wongsuwon recently rejected Indonesian mediation of thedispute, to which the government had already agreed, leaving dumbfoundedCambodian officials to wonder aloud whether it is the generals or thecivilians who have the right to negotiate.3 Free to disregard, in themost conspicuous ways, whatever instructions are issued by a feeblecivilian government, General Prayuth and his associates are determinedto return Mark Abhisit’s servile administration to power — if at allpossible, through means that may allow the government to claim some”democratic” legitimacy.

This report examines the state of civil-military relations inThailand, highlighting the dominance of the Royal Thai Army over thecountry’s civilian government on each of the five dimensions thatexperts generally consider to measure civilian control — eliterecruitment, public policy, internal security, external defense, andmilitary organization. The report goes on to illustrate the crucial rolethat Thailand’s armed forces will play in the upcoming generalelections in support of the Democrat Party. The generals appear to havetaken a two-pronged approach to the elections. On the one hand, therumors of a military coup, the thinly veiled threats of violence andchaos, and the constant accusations disloyalty to the monarchy hurledagainst the opponents of the regime serve to intimidate the electorateinto voting for the Democrat Party, out of fear of what the militarymight do should the opposition win yet again.

On the other hand, the Royal Thai Army has committed massivefinancial, organizational, and logistical resources to fixing theoutcome of the elections. In constituencies around the country, themilitary is actively engaged in the effort to mobilize Democrat Partyvoters, buy the support of influential local figures, bully oppositioncandidates, and suppress the opposition’s vote. While the junta’srecourse to these practices in lead-up the 2007 elections was extensive(and well documented), the military’s aggressiveness has sinceintensified with the skyrocketing costs of a potential electoral defeat.