Why is the military educating us about democracy?

At a recent lunch meeting to update a Western diplomat on the state of Thai politics and democracy, this writer was asked what he thought of this and that general - and what were their relations with Army Chief General Anupong Paochinda?

Instead of making an informed guess, this writer flatly told the diplomat that if Thailand was a real democracy, such a question and speculation would be irrelevant. After all, such an issue is moot in much of Europe where civilians enjoy supremacy over the military.

But this is Thailand, a country where writing about this or that general makes for best-selling books and where the Army runs a fat campaign to educate the populace about democracy - despite its checkered record of staging one coup after the other.

The latest campaign, which is very visible, involved wrapping a huge campaign sticker in orange, black and white on one whole BTS Skytrain, on the inside and outside of carriages.

The campaign was dubbed "Sustainable Thinking" by the Army and the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) and involved a guideline on mental "immunity" which involves: accessing news with mindfulness, spending money reasonably, |carrying out your profession |with perseverance and making one's family sufficiently |happy.

"Mindfulness + reason = immunity" was its main motto.

Alright, maybe those messages - which also appeared on at least two large billboards along Bangkok's expressways - may not be the worst messages to convey. But is that really the job of the Army and Isoc?

Earlier this year, the Army was paid by Cabinet to go to rural areas - mostly regions where ousted and convicted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra is popular - to educate people about "democracy". Sounds like a bad joke doesn't it?

The pro-Thaksin rally on June 27 saw the deployment of a combined force of police and military - all from a government which, thanks to the Army chief's crucial role, came to power through a closed door political deal involving defecting politicians linked to the likes of banned political boss Newin Chidchob.

It's only "natural" then to put Phuket under the Internal Security Act - a product of the 2006 military junta - for two weeks, while Asean foreign ministers meet later this month. Never mind what local tourism operators think or feel.

The Army has been running the three southern-most provinces for many years now, and the disastrous effect can be felt every week as the death toll rises, along with allegations of torture.

A crucial question to be asked is: What constitutes a bona fide role for the military? And what does not? The line seems to be increasingly blurred in today's Thailand.

Should the Army's job description involve teaching Thais about democracy and "saving" Thailand from politicians like Thaksin by staging a coup d'etat? Do generals need to be questioned by reporters every day about what they think of the latest political situation? Do they still need to own and control major television stations and hundreds more radio stations, as they do now?

Equally disturbing about these extra-curricular activities of the military is that nobody seems to care about its ever-increasing role in Thai society.

The generals won't be here for the next day or two to hear the complaints. Some 60 top generals are currently off on an official visit to Vietnam while the government is having a hard time getting enough cash to fund the |annual budget. Yes, 60 officers - not six.


Pravit Rojanaphruk will be away starting next week on a fellowship to the United States as Kettering Foundation’s Katherine Fanning Fellow for Journalism and Democracy. He will return in early December.