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Soldiers and civilians: The turning point in Thailand’s governance

In December, the Asia New Zealand Foundation led a Track II delegation to Bangkok for roundtable talks in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and Thailand. University of Canterbury associate Professor Jim Ockey reports on the importance of civilian participation and expertise for effective governance – one of the key issues addressed during the dialogue. 

A banner on the side of a building showing the former Thai king

Military sociologist Morris Janowitz once posited that the very strengths that make it easy for militaries to seize power also make it very difficult for them to govern effectively.[1] He argued that soldiers generally believe that all problems can be resolved if the proper orders are given, if proper rules and regulation are written, and if discipline is instilled. However, this mindset and their distaste for "politics" make it very difficult for the military to engage in the kinds of discussions and compromise necessary to govern civilians effectively. Their expertise in military affairs leads them to expend precious resources creating a security state well beyond what is necessary, while overlooking other more important issues.  As such, a restoration of civilian expertise would lead to better governance, a more balanced set of priorities, and perhaps a less hostile relationship between the government and its rivals.

Military coups are not new to Thailand. Since the military was reorganised along Western lines in the 1880s, there have been 19 coup attempts, 12 of them resulting in the overthrow of the government. Thai political scientist Chai-Anan Samudavanija characterised this pattern as a "vicious cycle" where following a military coup, there has been a period of military rule, followed by the writing of a constitution, the holding of an election, a "honeymoon" period for the new legislature, then rising tensions and another coup.[2] 

While this pattern has held for over 80 years now, there are two other linked patterns that have received less attention. First, the periods of rule for soldiers and civilians reversed after the 1973 democratic uprising, with civilian governments generally lasting much longer than military governments. Military governments had become truly interim, governing on average for only a year, then stepping aside after new elections. Second, beginning in 1932, virtually every military regime had come to power with civilian allies, and had governed with the assistance of civilian allies. This tendency had also expanded after the 1973 uprising, so that following most coups, the military had appointed a civilian prime minister rather than take the top position themselves. In this way, the most serious deficiencies of military rule highlighted by Janowitz were alleviated, as civilians were better trained in their fields and more willing to engage in discussion and compromise than their military counterparts. 

A soldier sitting on a tank in front of a crowd of people

The current military regime has marked a large step backward on both these latter patterns, with the army commander taking on the prime ministership himself, appointing a cabinet of senior military officers, and staying in power for a longer time than any military government since the 1960s. The military government claims good intentions, asserting that a strong hand is needed due to widespread political conflict, during a time when Thailand was facing a royal succession some thought might be divisive. And yet, the succession has passed peacefully, and Thailand has been free of conflict since the coup. 

Meanwhile, with the military controlling the cabinet and heavily prioritising security, the economy has struggled, and major policy decisions have been put on hold. Economic development policies often clash with security policies: for example, the military is seeking to both strictly control the digital economy and encourage foreign investment in it, despite the policy incoherence that this creates. One of the economic advantages that Thailand enjoyed over its regional competitors was its level of freedom – but that has been seriously compromised by the ongoing enhancement of the security state. Without an effective civilian voice, there is no give, no compromise, and no public discussion over any of the policies deemed security related, even when these threaten to undermine such broader economic goals and development policies.

Traffic on a highway

Such problems could be alleviated if civilian technocrats, high ranking civil servants, and experts from the private sector were given more influence in decision-making. Bringing more civilians into key positions in the cabinet – and listening to them – could help to generate new, more effective, more balanced policies and encourage a return to more effective coordination between government and the private sector.

With the royal succession largely complete (except for the period of mourning and the ritual coronation) arguments for strong military government are no longer convincing. There are some positive signs that the military government has begun to recognise the importance of civilianisation; a December 2016 cabinet reshuffle brought in five new members – all civilians – with two soldiers resigning from the cabinet to take up positions on the Privy Council. Four of the five civilians were placed in deputy ministerial positions.

For New Zealanders interested in the future of Thai politics and the Thai economy, the civilianisation of the government and the easing (rather than an ongoing strengthening) of the security state deserves our attention – perhaps even more so than the restoration of democracy. As long as the cabinet is packed with soldiers, we might expect the problems identified by Janowitz to remain.

On the other hand, the Thai economy grew at its fastest pace in modern history in the mid to late 1980s when it was overseen by effective civilian technocrats, with the military visibly releasing its grip on a security state. Observers and potential investors should watch for continued signs of civilianisation and of more balanced government priorities, manifested in the loosening of strong controls on Thai citizens and foreign visitors alike, together with an easing of the security state.

[1] Morris Janowitz, The Military in the Development of New Nations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

[2] Chai-Anan Samudavanija, The Thai Young Turks (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982), pp. 2-3.

Jim Ockey is an associate professor of political science at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. His research interests cover many aspects of Thai politics, including democratization, civil-military relations, electoral politics, and political conflict. Ockey earned an MA and PhD in government at Cornell University, and a BA in political science from Brigham Young University.

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27 January 2017