The concept of “national security” is manipulated at the hands of the military
Today, the term “national security” has been frequently exploited for a variety of political purposes. As Thailand is under a firm control of the military government of Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, all policies implemented by the Thai junta have been explained within the context of “defending national security”. Once the military is able to explain certain situations through this discourse of “defending national security”, its behaviour, despite unlawful in nature, can be automatically legitimate.
In the process, the military government has prioritised the necessity to eliminate its enemies, once again, explicating it in terms of a challenge to national security. As some Thais have now begun to challenge the military rule, as seen in the campaign of Resistant Citizen (Pollamuang Tohklab), the battlefield against the so-called enemies of the state has been set. Undoubtedly, both policies and attitude of the military government are essentially security-centric.
Protecting the Thai nation from “bad elements” has been declared a major domestic mission under the current administration. This explained why the Prayuth regime has gone to a great extent in arresting people who ate sandwiches and read Orwell’s 1984 in public. Such mission serves two objectives: to respond to the nationalistic emotion spurred on by the military regarding national security as well as to legitimise the military’s role in the realm of political affairs.
So far, the defence establishment has portrayed anti-junta Thais as real and present dangers, even when in reality they might be created out of the military’s imagination. Hence, national security is under threat. The Prayuth government and the army together have painted a face of these enemies as a threat to the stability of the Thai nation, and some as anti-monarchists who must be eliminated.
Yet, while the military has incessantly harassed its enemies, through arresting, detaining or charging them through the Martial Court, it also casts another image of itself as an institution indispensable for the national security, stability and, ironically, the protector of Thai democracy. As a result, the compulsion for the military to fend off enemies in order to preserve national security had been the top agenda for the regime.
Analytically, the concept of national security has been tightly bound with the legitimacy of the military elite and their involvement in politics. When the nation is under threat, the military’s legitimacy is also at risk. They tend to equate the state of national security with that of their own security. Likewise, when faced with any challenge that could diminish their political influence, they are quick to explain it away as a threat to the security of the nation.
Owing to the overriding importance of the national security discourse, the military has sought to manipulate it to its own advantage. This is how enemies of the military or the threat from the Thaksin factions have come to play their part. In turn, from this standpoint, a nation at war with its own people seems to have consolidated the military’s place in politics.
Wira Amphai argued that the term “security”, or khwam mankhong, in the Thai military argot and Thai nationalist discourse has never been clearly defined. The notion “national security”, or khwam mankhong haeng chat, is particularly elastic; its meaning could be extended as far as to cover the territorial integrity, the security of the monarchy, Buddhism, and even the people.
This explains why the military coups in Thailand have been somewhat successful as they claimed to protect national security, yet exactly what they protected remained obscured. The last coup was initially perceived by middle-class Thais as the right remedy for the political deadlock in 2014. The coup-makers averred that national security was in jeopardy and military intervention was essential.
The name of the military regime that ruled Thailand in the aftermath of the coup was the National Council for Peace and Order (khana Raksa Khwam Sa-ngob Haeng Chat), signifying the underlining objective of the coup itself. Cheera Khienvichit, in his study on the concept of national security, emphasised that the definition of national security had been dominated by a small group of military elite and this definition has changed over time according to the shifting internal and external environments.
The process of Thailand’s national security policy making and implementing has historically been dominated by a small group of elites. Thai core values began to take root in the mid 19th century when the king and the aristocracy established the concept of nation, religion, and kingship in the national consciousness. Under the domination of the military and the bureaucracy, Thai conceptions of security were influenced by militaristic-authoritarian ideology.
Since the 1990s there has been a significant change in national security policy making. The process of security policy making had moved from military leaders to a group of authorities, which consists of the head of state, military leaders and civilian leaders in related fields. The security making group, which was formed as a committee, is known as the National Security Council. But now, it seems that the military has firmly regained control over the national security matters.
Thai political history has been rewritten discursively in a way that it projects the theme of national security being constantly defied by the enemies, internally and externally. Paradoxically, the Thai military continued to fight with external enemies in the neighbourhood even when regional cooperation, through ASEAN, was in its most mature phase. As evident, the Thai army declared war against Cambodia over the disputed areas in which the Preah Vihear is located.
Since the coup of 2014, some Thais have been branded the most threatening enemies to their own nation. Although this threat seems to have emerged recently, its roots date back further to the protracted Thai crisis almost a decade before, during which time one would have witnessed the military’s blatant intrusion in politics to maintain its political dominance against the rise of the Thaksin phenomenon.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.