In most democracies, the role of the Army and its chief are rather limited. However, it's different in Thailand, where the Army chief has been busy donning too many hats lately.
Here are just some of the hats that Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has put on over the past few weeks:
- That of a top diplomat: Prayuth has been telling the Foreign Ministry what Thailand's foreign policy should be towards Cambodia in relation to the border dispute.
- That of an election chief: On April 5, the local media reported Prayuth as saying: "There must definitely be an election. I have said that there will be." However, some members of the Election Commission are more concerned that there might be a coup.
- That of a not-so-convincing denier of coup rumours: Prayuth can never be convincing on this subject because of the role he played in the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra. How can he, who was involved in a coup then be denying the threat now?
- That of an adviser to all Thai voters: "Vote to protect monarchy" was the instruction from Prayuth that this newspaper carried on its front page last week. He was also quoted as saying that a high turnout was the key to safeguarding the monarchy and democracy. But what if the majority of Thai voters vote for the "wrong" party? Will there be another military coup? He also believes that all Thais know who to blame for the ongoing political crisis. "Everyone knows the culprits behind the lost lives and the injuries incurred [last April and May]," he was quoted as saying. Surely, he can't be serious.
- That of chief censor and promoter of the lese majeste law: Prayuth has ordered the Information and Communication Technology Ministry to block more websites and has told his soldiers to file lese majeste charges against red-shirt leaders for what they allegedly said during the April 10 rally. This was even before the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and police could make a move.
These are just some of the many hats that Prayuth has enjoyed wearing recently, though one can't help but wonder if they really fit an Army chief.
How weak does a prime minister or government have to be to allow the Army chief to do jobs that do not concern him? Will the public continue to accept these powers of the Army and its chief without asking what that has to do with Thai politics and society?
State mechanisms appear useless when confronted by the powers of the Army chief, something not even the supreme commander or the defence minister can match.
If there are people who care about democracy, the separation of power, and the rule of law, they should limit the powers of the Army and its chief. There's a risk that we will start accepting an Army that has too much power, just as we've become used to the fact that the Army owns and runs two out of the six free television stations and owns some 60 per cent of the radio airwaves.
Maybe, the Army chief will want to lead the road-safety campaign next Songkran. Perhaps, somebody can also inform the Army chief that it's dangerous to drive the country when the driver is so drunk with power - power that was not given to him by the people.