The Thais must stand up to an overmighty military; For 60 years army rule has been the rule not the exception, writes Benjamin Zawacki

May 25, 2014 4:59 pm

The Thais must stand up to an overmighty military

By Benjamin Zawacki

For 60 years army rule has been the rule not the exception, writes Benjamin Zawacki

In the years between Thailand’s last coup in 2006 and the one staged last week, conventional wisdom held that the army had learnt too much to repeat itself. The economy took a rare, appreciable hit; supporters of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra mobilised and resisted; the US invoked automatic military and economic sanctions; and Thai leaders were embarrassed at regional and international gatherings.

The 21st century, so the thinking went, would be different from the last, when the army staged bids for power no fewer than 17 times. When the same people, and the same party, who had been marched out of office in 2006 were voted back in little more than a year later it seemed that democracy and human rights had finally fought back and won.

Instead, Thailand is in the throes of another putsch.

The military’s announcement last week that a coup was under way – in contrast to those dating as far back as 1947 – made no mention of democracy, much less human rights. Even by the crude measure of military rhetoric, this is a regression. The military has failed to learn the one lesson that makes it an army rather than a lethal political faction: its role in political crises is constrained by civilian law and control.

If a Bangkok opinion poll on the subject of martial law, taken days before the coup, is any indication, then a majority of Thais in the city contribute to this failure by deferring to the army’s rights instead of demanding their own.

Yet the battle against the soldiers is uphill. The history, pride and power associated with the military account not only for the coups of yesterday, but if not addressed, will prompt more such actions in the future.

Save for a three-year hiatus in the mid-1970s, and 14 years thereafter until Mr Thaksin was overthrown in 2006, every Thai prime minister since 1946 has had a military title. Whether by coup – on average every seven years – engineered election or the odd honest poll, a man in uniform had run the country for 43 of 60 years. During this period military rule was the rule, not the exception, in Thailand. It is a Thailand that today’s elderly leaders remember well.

Many Thais, whatever their age, view that past with pride. While resistance to the military and its means of obtaining and maintaining power was notable in 1973, 1976, 1992, and since 2006, it was muted before and between those years. This is partly because of the symbiotic relationship between the army and Thailand’s revered king, who has also been in power since 1946 and whose protection is every soldier’s first duty. But it is also linked to notions of “Thai-ness”, unity and nationalism – notions that for many decades have been appropriated and cultivated by those in uniform.

A final reason for both the genuine glorification of, and limited resistance to, the military leadership is the army’s sheer power. Despite the fact that the country has faced no credible external threat for three decades, Thailand’s military budget rose by more than 50 per cent in the year after the 2006 coup. Aside from countering the deadly, if contained, southern insurgency, the army is thus able to deploy and display its forces and materiel for public works, parades and popular royal events. It inspires awe as the main attraction on Thai Children’s Day, apprehension when political tensions run high and outright fear when it takes over the nation.

Wrongdoing by the government of Mr Thaksin and that of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, overthrown this month, shows that even elected civilian leadership does not guarantee commitment to democracy and human rights. This is unacceptable but almost never – including this month – cause for military action, which often serves only to render civilian rule short and sporadic. It is time for Thai citizens – urban and rural, rich and poor, educated and untrained – to hold civilian governments accountable and military juntas in contempt.

Military rule is both a cause and effect of their failure consistently to do so in the past.

Other nations also have an important role to play, as shown by the swift and critical responses from the US, France and Germany. But even legislatively mandated US sanctions involve much discretion in their reach and duration. The “international community”, moreover, is not confined to the west; while Japan called the coup “deeply regrettable”, China and Russia said nothing at all.

The army’s omission of democracy and human rights from its announcement is a sign of brutal honesty. So, too, is the name the military council has chosen, which unlike those of past juntas makes no reference to democracy. It describes its sole objective: the Peace and Order Maintaining Council. Only when revoking martial law and returning the country to civilian control are included will people’s rights be realised in Thailand.

The author is writing a book on southeast Asia, and is a visiting fellow in the human rights programme at Harvard Law School


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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