Thailand’s military: averting or precipitating a clash?
20 May 2014|

Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.In declaring Martial Law on Tuesday, the Thai Army commander, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, appears to have sought to avert a catastrophe. Conscious of the bloodshed on the streets of Bangkok in May 2010 and eager to prevent a repeat in the last months of his time as army chief before mandatory retirement at the end of September, Prayuth has decided to act. He has invoked an obscure clause of the 1914 Martial Law Act, clutching to that legal provision as cover for his dramatic intervention in Thai politics, notably avoiding abrogating the constitution or declaring the acting interim prime minister as being stood down. He appears to be trying to walk a fine line between illegal extra-constitutional action and assertive posturing to break the impasse.

This dramatic step followed moves in the opposition-dominated senate to appoint an alternative prime minister—a move the senate (known for its pro-Suthep, pro-Democrat Party and anti-Shinawatra-clan position) justified on the basis of another dubious legal interpretation of the constitution. That interpretation would’ve been used to generate an unprecedented legal quandary with two competing claims to the prime ministership. Prayuth’s precipitate action appears to have short-circuited those plans for now. But that wasn’t his only concern.

Prayuth acted as pro-government red shirt protesters gathered to denounce the anti-government protesters led by Suthep Thaugsuban and as stories emerged of arms caches being distributed among shady groups with ill intent. To Prayuth, the tipping point had been reached.

But Prayuth’s legal pretense wore thin as the hours passed and as the interim acting prime minister and his government began to declare that, with power effectively taken out of their hands by the military, the situation was, in effect, a coup.

Prayuth is without question a man of the establishment. But for the last couple of years he has maintained a contentious line, drawing ire from red shirt protesters for being soft on Suthep and his supporters and criticism from the establishment backers of Suthep disappointed he hadn’t acted sooner and more firmly.

Prayuth knows, however, that he’s sitting on a powder-keg. The military remains loyal to the crown and to the chain of command. But many of the rank and file in the military are from the north and north east. Their families are supporters of the red shirts and of the Shinawatras. He knows there are limits to how far he can use the military without damaging the fabric of his institution and of society itself. Conceivably, the Shinawatras could be dislodged—and this is what many in the establishment hope to ensure before the succession. But the schism in Thai society would be unlikely to heal anytime soon just because they were removed from the political equation.

So where to from here? Prayuth’s hoping his declaration of martial law will act as a circuit breaker. But it’s unclear he has anything more than a short-term plan of action. His strong words are meant to deter and intimidate so that he doesn’t end up facing the kinds of crowds his troops faced in the streets of Bangkok in May 2010.

Prayuth flicked the switch to jolt both sides into making concessions. But the stakes are high and it’s not at all clear that his actions were the circuit breaker he hoped they would be—only time will tell. Prayuth faces an uphill battle to avoid being harshly criticised internationally for overstepping his mandate.

In the meantime, Thailand can be expected to lurch from crisis to crisis. And without a healthy king able to step in and break up the argument, as he did so effectively in 1992, Thailand looks set to stumble on in a state of governmental dysfunction the like of which hasn’t been seen in Thailand for generations.

Ideally, some concessions could be made on both sides to allow elections to proceed, but there’s a dearth of good ideas that could prompt either side to back down without bloodshed. Even an attempted harsh clampdown is unlikely to make much difference beyond the short term. Ultimately, there’s little prospect of resolution until after the succession.

John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He was Australia’s defence attaché to Thailand from 2008-2010. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.