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 Prayuth Chanocha, promised the Thai public that the military will observe a policy of strict neutrality in the 2011 general elections. Given the resources that Thailand’s armed forces have expended since 2006 to steer voters into returning the desired election results, overthrow elected governments it did not consider worthy of its support, and impose its own proxies on a recalcitrant electorate, there is no chance that the generals will stay on the sidelines. Indeed, just as in the 2007 elections, the Royal Thai Army has its own candidate for Prime Minister — Mark Abhisit Vejjajiva. Whereas their efforts failed to save the Democrat Party from defeat in 2007, this time Thailand’s armed forces are determined to stop at nothing to manufacture a legislative majority on behalf of Mark Abhisit. Not only is the dominant role that the military has managed to assert over Thailand’s political system at stake in these elections; the prospect that an opposition victory might result in the investigation and prosecution of senior generals for their role in the massacre of Red Shirt protesters in April and May 2010 has raised the stakes even further. For Thailand’s armed forces, defeat is not an option in the 2011 general elections.
A few months ago, Mark Abhisit made the imaginative claim that the Thai military remains under civilian control.1 Considering that he owes his job to the generals, the Prime Minister knows better. In fact, with the choice of Mark Abhisit as its frontman, the Royal Thai Army has shown that it has learned the lessons of 1992, when General Suchinda Kraprayoon’s insistence on personally serving as Prime Minister triggered massive protests in Bangkok, complete with a massacre of unarmed protesters. To avoid a repeat of that debacle, Mark Abhisit’s urbane demeanor and patrician pedigree are the ideal cover for the military’s continued dominance of Thailand’s political life. Beyond the window-dressing, however, the reality is that the Thai military has almost never been under civilian control. What is worse, the generals have more power today than they have had in decades.
Having staged more coups than any modern army, the Thai military’s views still figure into every political calculus. And while its budget has more than doubled since the 2006 coup, the events of April and May have shown that its competence and commitment to democratic values are beyond the pale of analysis. Unlike his predecessor, General Prayuth Chan-ocha finds it impossible to resist the temptation of reminding the public that he is in charge. Almost every day, the public is treated to his windbaggery on a range of topics lying well beyond his narrow constitutional authority and still more limited intellect. The military’s handling of the border dispute with Cambodia, moreover, has offered ample evidence for the proposition that the generals take no orders from civilians. Embarrassingly, General Prayuth and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon recently rejected Indonesian mediation of the dispute, to which the government had already agreed, leaving dumbfounded Cambodian officials to wonder aloud whether it is the generals or the civilians who have the right to negotiate.3 Free to disregard, in the most conspicuous ways, whatever instructions are issued by a feeble civilian government, General Prayuth and his associates are determined to return Mark Abhisit’s servile administration to power — if at all possible, through means that may allow the government to claim some “democratic” legitimacy.
This report examines the state of civil-military relations in Thailand, highlighting the dominance of the Royal Thai Army over the country’s civilian government on each of the five dimensions that experts generally consider to measure civilian control — elite recruitment, public policy, internal security, external defense, and military organization. The report goes on to illustrate the crucial role that Thailand’s armed forces will play in the upcoming general elections in support of the Democrat Party. The generals appear to have taken a two-pronged approach to the elections. On the one hand, the rumors of a military coup, the thinly veiled threats of violence and chaos, and the constant accusations disloyalty to the monarchy hurled against the opponents of the regime serve to intimidate the electorate into voting for the Democrat Party, out of fear of what the military might do should the opposition win yet again.
On the other hand, the Royal Thai Army has committed massive financial, organizational, and logistical resources to fixing the outcome of the elections. In constituencies around the country, the military is actively engaged in the effort to mobilize Democrat Party voters, buy the support of influential local figures, bully opposition candidates, and suppress the opposition’s vote. While the junta’s recourse to these practices in lead-up the 2007 elections was extensive (and well documented), the military’s aggressiveness has since intensified with the skyrocketing costs of a potential electoral defeat.