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Apr 26, 2010 | Commentary

Anti-government protesters and Thai security forces continue to grapple for control of Bangkok and the country’s political dialogue. In some of the bloodiest protests seen in over a decade, at least 25 people have been killed and 800 injured, the majority being protestors. The protestors, dubbed “red-shirts” for their identifying colour, are demanding the removal from power of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The dispute dates back to 2006, when the Prime Minister at the time, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a bloodless military coup while away at the UN. After little more than a year, the military returned power to civilian rule. Despite its withdrawal from power, Thailand’s military continues to meddle in political affairs, helping build an anti-Thaksin coalition with Abhisit at its head. The military has benefited from the current government, receiving generous budget increases.

The protests highlight the unpredictable role that the military continues to play in Thailand’s democratic governance. Traditionally viewed as a powerful actor in its own right, many observers believed it had withdrawn from overt political interference following a coup in 1991 and the subsequent massacre of civilian protesters in 1992. The current situation demonstrates, however, the pivotal role that the army continues to hold.

Although the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (DAP) (known for their yellow-shirts) has so far refrained from engaging in the protests, its leadership recently said that they would take to the streets again if the red-shirts were not brought under control. In the past, the army has been reluctant to move against the DAP, even when the movement occupied Bangkok’s international airport. Further adding to the confusion is a statement from Thai army chief General Anupong Paochinda, saying that parliament should be dissolved and elections held if the impasse cannot be resolved.

The continuing role of Thailand’s security forces as an independent actor in politics does not reflect well on the democratic control of its armed forces. Since the violence of the April protest, the military has vowed restraint. Historic precedent suggests that whatever the merit of its intentions, a security force unbeholden to elected leaders rarely contributes to a vibrant democracy.