Thailand, the favorite destination for Indian tourists, is an instructive case for the study of civil-military relations. Control of the military by civil authority, the accepted democratic norm, is frequently challenged by the Palace, the third player even though monarchy is constitutional. An election is around the corner on 7 May with the parliamentary term ending on 23 March. Currently, a coalition led by the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) the military which includes three Generals, all former Army Chiefs, has ruled the country since 2014. The two Generals in subordinate political positions are senior to the Prime Minister. The billionaire PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, was followed by his sister Yingluck becoming Prime Minister later and now his daughter Paetongtarn is carrying the flag of Pheu Thai Party (PTP). King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Rama X, barred his elder sister, who renounced royalty, from contesting elections with Thaksin’s PTP. Shinawatra according to a report in The Bangkok Post in May 2005 had made arrangements with the Palace to control the Generals.
The PPRP is led by Deputy Prime Minister, Pravit Wongsuwon, the senior most General; Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha juniormost General is PM with Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paochinda. Wongsuwon last month told reporters that his party will decide whether he will be PM but he prefers “military life to political one”. He was confident his party would remain in power as part of a coalition. The Sunday China Morning Post of December 2022 reported that three of four Thais think PTP should be in power and Paetongtarn was the favorite leader to end the decade-old military rule. The National Institute of Development Administration polls showed she was 10 percentage points ahead of Prayuth and PTP ahead of PPRP and other political parties. But unless all political parties unite against the Generals’ PPRP they have no chance of defeating them.
Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch said that the military has made itself invulnerable by framing laws to dissolve the main opposition party, control the Election Commission, and hand-pick the Senate (which decides on government formation) to thwart the will of the people. Wongsuwon publicly stated it is not difficult for his party to form a government as the Senate is ‘controllable’. Thai Generals have taken a leaf out of neighboring absolute military rulers of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution into their 2017 constitution. Only a landslide victory by a single party like the National League of Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi achieved in 2021 (which resulted in the coup) can undo military rule in Thailand. The 2017 constitution allows the nomination of 250 Senators (mostly Army and Police) that can dilute the verdict of the 500-strong House of elected Representatives. Rules have been so framed that the military needs only one-third of the elected house for government formation. The Generals have given a civilian façade to the military government – to put it crudely – like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The military (and police) in Thailand is one of the most politicized entities in this part of the universe. My Thai colleagues at Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth (US) in 1975 mentioned how they made their political choices while in the Military Academy. Recently, the constitution was believed to have been amended to give the King special powers and certain special forces placed under his command. The Army Chief 2018, the son of a former coup leader, led his officers on bended knees and folded hands, to swear an oath of allegiance to the King at Army Headquarters in Bangkok. Gen Prayuth outdid him saying: “I will worship and protect monarchy”. Generals are galore – for every 212 troops one flag rank officer. In India, 21,000 soldiers make one General. The Army has prepared a 20-year Strategic Development Plan which governments are required to follow.
Although absolute monarchy ended in 1932, the constitutional monarchy prevailed with the previous monarch the most revered King who ruled for 70 years, slightly less than the term of Queen Elizabeth II. It is not clear which way the pendulum is swinging in Palace-Military relations at present. South China Morning Post reported that ‘normally the Army proposes and the King disposes of. Very strict laws exist on royal defamation under lese’ majeste – 15 years in jail under Law 112 for expression against Monarchy. Protests for reforming monarchy erupted recently though mostly by youth who use code words to refer to their targets.
Two tragic events occurred last December – the sinking of a Thai warship with several sailors drowned; and the cardiac arrest of the Crown Princess (apparently first in the line of succession) still in a coma. The effects of the pandemic have struck a body blow to tourism, the mainstay of the economy. Fortunately, the tourist footfall in 2022 has crossed the 10mn mark.
India has strong and friendly relations with Thailand with 50,000 Indians gainfully employed from Gaggan Anand’s two Michelin Star restaurants to Gunjan Kumar’s mobile chana jor garam enterprise. Statues of Hindu gods and goddesses are dotted all over Thailand with many beautiful Tamil kovils. There are strong Buddhist links also with Thailand. The Shinawatra scion may give the Generals shivers but the ruling trio of Generals is bound to return for a third term four months from now.