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What’s in store for Thailand?

by Ramesh Thakur

During a conference in Bangkok in August, signs of a three-way tussle among Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, his political opponents and the military were already evident. For example, a former army chief who remains influential as an adviser to the king made a point of wearing the uniform while addressing serving army officers and telling them that their primary loyalty was to the king and nation, not to the government of the day.

The list of military interventions in Third World countries is long, although mercifully less common in recent times. Distaste for rule by generals grew with greater awareness of the excessive brutality and gross incompetence of military rule from Argentina and Chile to Myanmar and the Philippines.

The monopoly of force and coercive power facilitates the capture of political power by the military. Even the weakest army is the strongest coercive institution in a country and possesses enough firepower to displace a civilian regime. Moreover, the professional traits of the military are conducive to taking over control. The structure is hierarchical and centralized, emphasizing discipline and obedience to rank and office rather than to individuals. Channels of communication stress clarity and rapidity of message transmission. Yet, simultaneously, internal secrecy is both a requirement and a habit.

The probability of a coup is not linked to the size of an army, its level of professionalism and the career paths of officers leading a coup. Coups may be carried out by large or small and cohesive or fragmented armies, under the leadership of junior or senior officers, in competitive multiparty or one-party systems. Nor is there a firm relationship between coups and social characteristics. Motives vary in the initial decision to intervene and they often shift during the course of a coup.

A coup is just the start of a military’s involvement in politics. The more interesting question concerns the impact of military rule. How effective is it for political and economic development: Is it progressive, reactionary or regressive?

Every dictator likes to convert military dictatorship into legitimate political order in due course. But once it has taken over the reins of government, the military finds it difficult to establish and implement the conditions and timing for its retreat into barracks. In particular, there is the fear of punitive measures against officers responsible for the coup, including death for treason. This can cause policy and government paralysis. The burden of unpopularity for the tough decisions of government fall on the shoulders of the generals.

The military also ends up progressively collapsing the larger national interest into narrower corporate interests. This erodes the legitimacy of the military institution itself. Escalating policy differences over difficult policy choices and rising unpopularity pose threats to military unity.

The military is sometimes held to be more developmental because it is more nationalistic, above the divisions of caste, religion and tribalism that divide Third World societies. Its attitude and behavior are more likely to be characterized by “modern” traits based on professional training and the norms of the military, the emphasis placed on career advancement through achievement, the requirements of military technology and modern weapons systems, and the segregation of the military from civilians. Generals can make far-reaching decisions without being constrained by the need for political compromise. And they possess the coercive and organizational means to enforce “right” but unpopular decisions and so provide the vital stability to the political process without which development is impossible.

If these putative advantages were genuinely present, we would expect the beneficial results to be apparent in the record of development under military regimes. In fact, in most cases little progress is visible over the record of the ousted civilian regimes: the drivers of development may change, but the cars remain the same.

The civilian-military distinction is of little use in explaining social change. Military governments can be just as prone to policy incoherence and instability. Generals in power have to resolve a fundamental tension between the military as the government and as an institution, between the conflicting demands of political legitimacy and corporate security. A preoccupation with preserving its own security generates important discontinuities, repression and self-isolation.

The most consistent consequence and legacy of military intervention for post-military politics would appear to be a tendency to produce a patrimonially dominated political system. A military that has taken over the government once finds it difficult to restore “normal” relations with a civilian government. Military regimes invariably place restrictions on organized political activity, as has happened already in Thailand.

The result is that no cohesive alternative political structures exist when the military is prepared to return to barracks. In the vacuum, nonorganizational means of political relationships dominate, for example personal charisma, feudal following and sectarian affinity. These retard the process of political development and increase the probability that the postmilitary state will be patrimonial.

Military regimes do not enjoy clear-cut advantages as governments. They face the same economic constraints and social cleavages. Civilian and military regimes do not matter for the important outcomes of economic development and political stability. Instead of a society taking on the military virtues of order and discipline under a spell of military rule, often the soldiers themselves acquire the politicians’ vices of drift, strife, factionalism and corruption.

The dominance of the civil over the military lacks the sharpness of focus provided by a coup. The latter is an event; the former a set of relationships. It is a less exciting field of inquiry. Yet the successful institutionalization of civilian control is more significant, subtle and complex than the overthrow of fragile regimes by military coups. Thailand has suffered yet another setback in this crucial task.