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Jul 1, 2014 | Commentary

The May 22, 2014 coup marked the death knell to any possible progress toward security sector reform (SSR) in Thailand. SSR generally possesses: 1) active oversight by democratically-elected civilians; 2) institutionalized accountability, efficiency, and transparency under the rule of law; 3) civilian-monitored resources which are not overly budgeted; and 4) a role for civil society in monitoring the security sector. The coup destroyed any potential moves by Thailand toward these objectives. But the putsch should come as no surprise.

Thailand is a country pockmarked by military coups (e.g., 27 coups and coup attempts since 1912). Indeed, since its founding in 1870, the military has played a leading role on the political stage. Thailand was a security state until 1988, with the country dominated by an asymmetrical alliance between the monarch and armed forces, with the latter as junior partner. After 1988, the monarch and military had to partially recede to make way for the emergence of elected politicians. Then, between 1992 and 2006, a democratic regime became increasingly imbedded and the military appeared to be becoming subject to elected civilian supremacy.

From 1998 until 2001, the then-army commander initiated his own SSR program, attempting to downsize the armed forces while making it more capable; root out corruption and inefficiency; and restructure its role. Under Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-6), these reforms were quickly shunted aside. Nevertheless, he diminished the military budget while succeeding in promoting loyalists and relatives to senior military positions. In this way, Thaksin established a form of personalized civilian control over the security sector. He carved out a large faction of influence in the military as well as the police. It was partly because of Thaksin’s attempts to politically manipulate the security sector – and thus threaten the interests of the palace – that he was eventually overthrown by an arch-royalist military faction in 2006.

Before returning to the barracks, the military coup group fashioned a new set of laws which insulated them from civilian interference in military reshuffles; gave them almost carte blanche autonomy in a newly-revised Internal Security Act; and even allowed them a quota of hand-picked, appointed, military representatives in a newly designed Senate. Although a democratically-elected government returned to Thailand in February 2008, the armed forces remained well-insulated from civilian control over the security sector. At the end of 2008, following the judicial toppling of the pro-Thaksin civilian Prime Minister, an anti-Thaksin coalition government was cobbled together in the home of the army commander.

To survive, the new Abhisit Vechachiwa government required military assistance to repress pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra was elected Prime Minister and appeared to embark on a program of security sector reforms. For example, her Defense Minister spoke of the need to cut the military budget, diminish the number of senior military officers, and have military academies place greater emphasis on the need for soldiers to respect democracy. Yet despite such bold talk, Yingluck’s defense ministry came to include a superfluous overload of generals. Yingluck herself eventually came to serve as Defense Minister and Prime Minister simultaneously. Even then, her government was only able to dominate the Royal Thai Police as well as the military within the offices of the Defense Ministry – not those soldiers staffing the army, navy, air force, or Royal Thai Armed Forces.

Problems between the arch-royalist military leadership and Yingluck came to a head regarding her administration’s investigations into possible military violations of law during its repression of a pro-Thaksin rally in 2010. Meanwhile, Yingluck’s government was trying to change the constitution, and thus appeared to be challenging the interests of entrenched arch-royalists – the patrons of Thailand’s military. In December 2013, following the beginning of massive anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok, Army Commander Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that the military would remain neutral between the government and protestors. Then in January, he warned the Yingluck administration not to use violence to quell the demonstrators. According to some sources, however, Prayuth had already begun to plan a coup.

By May, Yingluck had been forced from office but there seemed to be no end in sight to the rival demonstrations by pro- and anti-Yingluck demonstrators. It was such pandemonium that gave Prayuth his excuse to declare martial law in Thailand on May 20. This announcement represented phase one of the coup because it was made without the approval of the civilian government. As the arcane Martial Law Act ominously states, “The military authority shall have superior power over the civilian authority in regard to military operation, desistance or suppression, or keeping public order.” Phase two of the coup occurred two days later when Prayuth, upon being told that the caretaker government refused to resign, simply announced that he was usurping power.

Since the May double-putsch, potential efforts at security sector reform have been turned on their head.  Prayuth established a National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) junta to administer the country, replacing the elected civilian-caretaker government altogether. Martial law has continued and soldiers can act with near legal impunity. In addition, Thailand’s civilianized rule of law was voided and replaced with military courts. These courts involved long pre-charge and pre-trial detentions, prohibited appeals, and could lead to harsh sentences, as well as being closed to public observation. A Peace Maintaining Force was created to arrest and detain potential enemies of the state.  Thus far, at least 500 Thais have been detained.

Moreover, the military has come to at least temporarily oversee Thailand’s economy: the Board of Investment, National Energy Policy Council, and the State Enterprises Board are today chaired and directed by senior military officers.  Senior military officers as well as palace courtiers enacted an interim constitution in July 2014 which will include an appointed legislature mostly filled by military officers. Prayuth himself is likely to continue on as NCPO head and perhaps even become appointed Prime Minister, serving until elections that he says will occur in late 2015.

Ultimately, Thailand today represents the case of anti-security sector reform. There is no elected civilian control of the security sector. Accountability and transparency under civilian-created rule of law is thoroughly lacking. The military is overseeing the economy and it looks to soon have a bloated budget. Finally, civil society has been muzzled.

But it was not the coup which destroyed Thailand’s security sector reform program. Rather, serious attempts to institutionalize SSR efforts in Thailand remained dormant since 2001. Thaksin sought to politicize SSR and the two juntas since his administration scuttled it altogether. Today, with a military junta once again ruling Thailand, where does security sector reform go from here? Not until a democratically elected government is back in office and a new monarch is securely on the throne will it be possible for Thailand to move toward controlling its military once again.  But such a process could be a long time coming. Meanwhile, the current crisis may provide the military with the excuse it needs to remain outside of elected civilian control for at least several years to come.


Paul Chambers serves as Director of Research, Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, Chiang Mai, Thailand.