Since 1932, Thailand has experienced 11 successful and 7 attempted coups. The most recent military adventure into Thai politics was in 2006 when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from power in a bloodless coup. It was the first coup in 15 years, coming after several years of attempts to reform and downsize the military. With the apparent propensity for coups in Thailand, the question arises why the recent weeks of political turmoil, lawlessness and violence in Bangkok were not met with a military coup. Is this perhaps an indication that the military no longer plays a role in Thai politics?
While rumours of a coup from disgruntled military factions circulated, it should be recalled that the current coalition government under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was formed in December 2008 through back-room deal-making in which parliamentarians switched allegiances. After several years of Thaksin or Thaksin-loyal governments considered to represent a threat to the establishment, many observers suggest that the coalition-building process involved the active participation of the army, mandarins and others to advance the interests of the political establishment. Specifically, it was alleged that the Army Commander, General Anupong Paochinda, coerced some MPs into siding with Abhisit’s party. At that time, the alternative to an Abhisit-led coalition government would have been one led by the current main opposition party which is aligned with the exiled Thaksin and, according to one’s political stance, either water-tight or loosely-affiliated with the current red-shirt movement.
If the current government coalition remains the political choice of the non-elected establishment, including the military command, then why did the security forces fail for so many weeks to properly act against the red-shirt protests and the increasingly violent incidents associated with extremists? Firstly, Thai society is deeply divided by the issues emerging from the red-shirt protests in terms of class divisions and urban-rural dynamics but also regional identity in terms of Bangkok elites vs. the north/northeast region. Such an entrenched array of social divisions would rarely transcend the security forces in any country. The commanders of the security forces were fully aware that factions and individuals in the army and police remained sympathetic to the red-shirt cause, as opposing factions or individuals had been sympathetic to the yellow-shirt cause in 2008.
Secondly, underlying institutional animosities between the army and police also would have been exacerbated by the political and social divisionism in society. The general perception being that the army is essentially the safeguard of the royalist establishment while the police are generally more associated with Thaksin’s political realm. Indeed, Thaksin himself had reached the rank of police lieutenant colonel when he resigned in 1987, having developed and sustained strong support networks with commanders and sections of both the army and police.
Thirdly, recognition must also be given to the impact on the image of the army of heavy-handed crackdowns and loss of life in recent decades. So shortly after its last military adventure in 2006 and subsequent unsuccessful post-coup governance, the army was not keen to further tarnish its reputation. In this respect, the recent reluctance of the Army Commander, General Anupong, to forcibly crackdown on the protests can largely be explained by the strong criticism of the army’s actions against the red-shirts, particularly after the clashes on April 10 which resulted in 25 deaths including five military personnel in allegedly targeted assassinations. General Anupong’s preference for political solutions rather than strong actions against mostly unarmed protestors was widely known; as was his wish to retire from the armed forces later this year with a clean record.
General Anupong’s dovish posture had reportedly caused significant tensions with the increasingly hawkish stance of Prime Minister Abhisit in recent weeks. By April 16, Prime Minister Abhisit formally transferred command for the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES), a security coordinating body charged with ending the protests, from the Deputy Prime Minister to Army Commander Anupong. According to some analysts, the tensions were visible when the Prime Minister appeared on national television with the Army Commander as an attempt to publicly co-opt his support for strong actions against the protests. General Anupong, however, reportedly remained non-committal in the broadcast to ending the protests: “If our actions can bring back law and order and end the problem, I would be ready to follow what the government orders within the lawful framework of the CRES.” Indeed, many Bangkok pundits, journalists and residents were becoming increasingly frustrated by the inaction of the security forces, particularly the army.
It was when hard-line red-shirt leaders, allegedly under the direction of Thaksin, rejected a government proposal including early elections that negotiations towards a political solution effectively ended. It was only then that the security forces were compelled, partly by pressure from the civilian government, to undertake forceful actions from May 14 onwards to close-down the red-shirt demonstration. By May 19, the organised Bangkok protests had ended resulting in a total of 52 deaths from clashes between the security forces and the red-shirts with black-shirted security guards.
It is certain that the red-shirts and their political associates will fixate on that military intervention in Bangkok, perhaps more than the 2006 coup, until the next elections and beyond. The army in particular will be condemned for its actions by large sections of Thai society, especially red-shirt supporters in the north/northeast. The Bangkok establishment and many of its residents, however, will be seen to strongly support the belated military operation and instead focus anger and disdain on the red-shirt group.
After many episodes of military adventurism in Thai politics, the civilian government paradoxically pressured for military action–ultimately contributing to the military’s reluctant intervention against civilians. In the current political configuration, a military coup was not on the agenda. But now that the military has acted, the civilian government will have to seriously address the political fallout, which will include elections. After the post-coup politicking of recent years, it can only be hoped that the army will not have to play any further role after elections.