Thailand’s military, government in sync

Prime minister needs to keep army on his side

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Thai soldiers hold anti-government protesters in their encampment in Bangkok on May 19, ending a nine-month showdown that caused up to 90 deaths.ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTOGRAPHS Thai soldiers hold anti-government protesters in their encampment in Bangkok on May 19, ending a nine-month showdown that caused up to 90 deaths.
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BANGKOK

Since the quelling of the Red Shirt pro-democracy protests in May, Thailand has witnessed a show of unity between Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose legitimacy in office has been questioned, and the military, a key player in the government’s stability.

Local media - especially those controlled by the military - have spotlighted the government’s leadership and the military’s efforts to restore peace during and after the protests, while contrary views of the crackdown on the Red Shirts have been censored.

Meanwhile, Mr. Abhisit has approved a controversial defense budget and declined to investigate complaints of mismanaged military expenditures, as several army leaders are expected to be promoted, at least partly for their performance in quashing the Red Shirt rebellion.

Mr. Abhisit can ill afford a disgruntled military, which overthrew this Buddhist-majority country’s thrice-elected prime minister - Thaksin Shinawatra - in 2006 and has conducted or attempted 18 coups since the 1930s whenever it has deemed such action necessary.

Mr. Thaksin’s ouster, in part, sparked the Red Shirt demonstrations in downtown Bangkok this spring, which the U.S.-trained army put down with snipers, assault rifles and armored personnel carriers. As many as 90 people were killed and 1,900 injured during the nine-week showdown.

“Since the army is the only tool the Abhisit government has against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red Shirts, there is no question it has to keep the military happy,” the English-language Bangkok Post reported this month.

Among the military leaders awaiting promotion is Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is expected to succeed Gen. Anupong Paochinda as army commander in chief after the latter retires Oct. 1. Mr. Abhisit and Gen. Anupong reportedly have agreed to the change of command.

Colleagues and Thai military analysts regard Gen. Prayuth, 56, as a more hawkish commander than Gen. Anupong, who is said to have been reluctant to use heavy firepower against the Red Shirts’ barricades because he wanted to retire without his countrymen’s blood on his hands. Gen. Anupong and other top generals overthrew Thaksin in a bloodless coup.

“If Gen. Prayuth does get his promotion, it will be seen as reward for his service during the latest campaign against the Red Shirts, aside from the fact that the deputy army chief is actually in line to succeed Gen. Anupong,” the Bangkok Post reported on July 15.

At least five other top military leaders also are expected to be promoted, including Deputy Chief of Staff Dapong Ratanasuwan, who is considered the strategic planner of the army’s operation to contain the Red Shirt rebellion.

Thailand's military wields a lucrative and influential media arm, owning more than 200 radio frequencies, a TV station and a TV channel’s concession.

But the military has not staged any victory parades after crushing the Reds, perhaps mindful that the civilian government should have the public spotlight.

During the crackdown against the Red Shirts in April and May, grim-faced uniformed officers frequently appeared on TV to speak to the public, prompting some to question why Mr. Abhisit was not more visible.

The prime minister also was criticized for sheltering inside a military base in Bangkok for several weeks during the Reds’ insurrection, eating and sleeping near Gen. Anupong’s office, apparently fearing assassination.

Today, the military’s image is still a sensitive topic.

Official TV broadcasts and other displays feature flashbacks of armed soldiers trying to restore peace to Bangkok’s Red Shirt-infested streets while valiantly ushering innocent civilians out of harm’s way.

However, problems arose immediately when a new Positive Network group of people from advertising, public relations, media agencies and TV associations produced a video titled “Apologize Thailand” in mid-July.

The video includes graphic footage of clashes between the army and the Reds, along with other troubling aspects of Thai society, and was banned from being broadcast.

Its narrator asks in part: “Did we do anything wrong? Did we handle anything too harshly? Did we listen to only one side of the story? Did we perform our duties? Did we really think of people? Were we corrupt?”

The narrator advises: “If there was anyone to blame, it would be all of us. Apologize Thailand.”

After Thailand was cited internationally for censoring thousands of websites, plus other media, Mr. Abhisit said “Apologize Thailand” could be broadcast on TV, but television censors demanded it be “corrected” before it could air.

Thailand’s “military is first and foremost an armed bureaucracy, which does not fight wars,” analyst Duncan McCargo wrote in a 2002 article, “Security, Development and Political Participation in Thailand: Alternative Currencies of Legitimacy.”

“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,” wrote Mr. McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at Leeds University in England.

“In politics, they have consistently claimed for themselves high political office - many of Thailand’s prime ministers have had a military background - and a share in the running of the country.”

The military has appeared pleased that Mr. Abhisit increased the defense budget and generously allowed several controversial weapons-procurement contracts.

One of the prime minister’s most controversial moves regarding the army has been to ignore complaints that the military wasted $24 million on bogus bomb-detection equipment.

Earlier this year, the devices - GT200s - were exposed as frauds and denounced by the Thai government. Nevertheless, the military continued using the hand-held devices in southern areas and subsequently detained several innocent Muslims as possible insurgents but missed actual bombs that killed several troops.

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