Thai military's political past looms over elections

By Rachel Harvey
BBC News, Bangkok

  • Published
19 May 2011 Bangkok army crackdown on red-shirt protests
Image caption,
Soldiers moved in one year ago to clear anti-government "red-shirt" protests in Bangkok

Thailand goes to the polls on 3 July in the first electoral test of the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. But given recent political history, will the outcome be solely dictated by the will of the people?

Standing in the commercial heart of Bangkok, with its gleaming shopping malls, towering office blocks and habitually congested traffic, it is hard to imagine that just five years ago tanks rolled down the streets, and a coup was under way.

Last year, soldiers were back on the same streets, this time under orders from Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to crush an increasingly violent and protracted anti-government protest.

Thailand has been convulsed by bouts of political turbulence since the bloodless putsch of 2006 ousted the populist, and now fugitive, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra.

The military has long played a central role in Thai politics.

So with the country facing a general election, many here are asking whether the generals really are, as they say, now prepared to sit back and leave things to the civilian politicians.

Tune in to any of the many television and radio stations controlled by the military, and, alongside the news and game shows, you may well be treated to a special programme extolling the virtues of the armed forces.

Chris Baker, a long-time Thai resident and political analyst says the military's image of itself is deeply rooted in history.

"The military ran politics in Thailand for half a century from 1932. During that time they put around the ideology that they really had a right to rule because they were a very special institution and had a special relationship with the monarchy," he said.

Even though they were pushed out with the rise of parliament from the 1980s onwards, Mr Baker believes the Thai armed forces have never entirely given up the idea they have at least a right to intervention, "to correct if things go wrong and in particular to control politicians and political corruption".

Behind the scenes

That instinct was seen very clearly in the coup of 2006.

The public reasons given for removing Mr Thaksin were that he was corrupt and failed to show sufficient loyalty to the monarchy. He had also interfered in military promotions and established a strong power base, which was perceived as a threat to the established status quo.

Two years later, the military peddled its political influence again.

This time the evidence suggests the army worked behind the scenes, helping to broker a deal that led to a new pro-establishment anti-Thaksin coalition, led by Mr Abhisit.

Wassana Nanuam has been writing about the Thai armed forces for the best part of two decades.

She is sure that if the current opposition Pheu Thai party - which is in effect controlled by Mr Thaksin - were to win the next election, the military would intervene again.

"The army will try all means to stop Pheu Thai from being the next government. But they can't do it explicitly. I don't think there will be another coup. Things have changed," Ms Wassana said.

She thinks the military is most likely to make its move after the election if the result does not go the way they would like.

Image caption,
General Prayuth Chan-ocha says the army's duty is to protect the country, monarchy and people

"If the opposition wins, but not an outright majority, the army could for instance lobby potential coalition parties to discourage them from joining the government," she said.

Others suspect the military's hand may have been at work even before a vote has been cast.

In early May, a prominent opposition MP and leader of the anti-government "red-shirt" movement, Jatuporn Promphan, was imprisoned after being charged with making comments deemed to be disrespectful of the monarchy - a very serious offence in Thailand.

Mr Jatuporn was already facing charges of terrorism in connection with last year's political violence, but had been out on bail awaiting trial.

The latest case against him was prompted by a complaint from the head of armed forces, General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Speaking to reporters, the general categorically denied any political motive.

"The army's duty is to protect the country, to protect the monarchy and to take care of the people," he said.

"I want everybody to understand that I'm not doing this to take sides, or to benefit any particular political party. I'm doing this for the monarchy."

'In the frame'

The military insists it is staying out of politics. Yet the rumours persist. The defence minister was recently forced to issue the latest in a series of public denials that the army was plotting another coup.

There is, however, another factor which might be making the army nervous - its leading role in the operation to end last year's anti-government protests.

The operation ended in bloodshed with casualties on both sides. Many of the protest leaders are now standing as opposition candidates in the election. If they win, might they be tempted to seek revenge?

"The military is definitely in the frame," according to Brad Adams, Asia director of the campaign group Human Rights Watch.

"Now the military may say ultimately it was the government which gave them the orders but in Thailand it doesn't always work that way.

"Most observers think that the military is stronger than the civilian government and when there is a disagreement between the two the military seems to get its way in Thailand."

The army turned down requests for an interview, saying it would be inappropriate for the military to give interviews during an election campaign.

So it is hard to know what the men in khaki are thinking. But their list of achievements since the last coup may give a clue as to what is at stake.

"They have managed to increase the military budget by more than 50%," said Chris Baker.

"They reintroduced an internal security act which had pretty much lapsed and they've been using it very actively ever since. They are right back in the centre of the political world again, and I think they like it, and I don't think they want to be pushed out again," he said.

Every politician running for office on 3 July will be acutely aware of that.

Hear more on The World Tonight programme at 2200BST on 2 June on BBC Radio 4.