As Thailand’s time under a military regime drags on for a year and a half without any prospect of an election in the near future, an independent writer and democracy activist says that political reform is just an empty promise if the Thai military does not reform itself.
Much like a film rerun, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, then Chief of the Royal Thai Army, on the evening of 22 May 2014, announced via a televised address that the military had staged a coup d’état and formed the so-called National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) with himself as its chief to rule the country with the help of martial law. After months of crushing and summoning prominent political figures and dissidents, Gen Prayut became Prime Minister and began the process of national reconciliation and reform in order to get rid of corruption for the achievement of ‘true democracy’.
To many, especially the supporters of the anti-election People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protest group, the current junta, who recently added ‘people’ at the end of the national motto of ‘the nation, religions, and monarchy’, might be able to get Thailand out of a decade-long political limbo through its ‘reform before election’ policy. For many democracy lovers, however, the country has sunk further into the vicious cycle of coups d’état which have repeatedly stalled the democratization process of the country, deepening its political crisis. Prachatai interviewed Pakawadee Veerapaspong, a democracy activist and independent writer who spoke before military officers in front of Army Headquarters on 31 October 2015, saying that unless the Thai military return to their barracks and leave the political arena for good, political reform is just so much lip service.
Pakawadee Veerapaspong spoke about an urgent necessity to reform the Thai military in front of the Headquarter of the Royal Thai Army amid heavy presence of military officers on 31 October 2015.
There is no response so far. But I don’t think the military would respond in any positive way. The Thai military is not accustomed to being criticized, not to mention being criticized publicly by an ordinary female citizen at the height of its power.
Why do you think the Thai military needs to be reformed?
The fact that coups d’état in Thailand occur repeatedly is the obvious answer. Thailand ranks very high in the list of countries where coups d’état happen most often. The fact that our country still suffers from coups in this era, even as many underdeveloped countries are moving towards democratization, suggests that there is something wrong in Thailand. Myanmar is holding a general election, while the Thai people have no prospect of returning to democracy in the near future. There must be something wrong. I insist that one of the big obstacles to democratization in Thailand is the military. Their mind-set, their influence, their interests and their involvement in Thai politics are pushing Thailand backwards. If the Thai people do not seriously consider and pursue military reform, democracy in Thailand will be in peril or at the worst abolished altogether.
There have been many discussions before about military reform in Thailand; why do you think it has never become reality?
The most likely opportunity for military reform in contemporary history was after Bloody May 1992. At that time, there was a popular demand for the military to go back to the barracks, which meant that the military must not intervene in civilian affairs. There was also a strong demand that the prime minister must come from an election, which is the right direction toward democratization. There was an atmosphere of civilian rule. But unfortunately we did not catch the tide and take the necessary steps to properly reform the military. We did not reform the education system in military schools to change the mind-set and values of young soldiers. We did not touch on the vast economic interests that the military has been holding. We did not improve the career path of officers to be based on merit instead of connections. We did not make the allocation of the military budget more transparent and accountable. We still acceded to the impunity of the officers involved in political massacres. At that time we were just satisfied that the military seemed to bow to the popular will and leave the scene.
We were proved wrong. The military never really bowed to the people’s will and as time went by, it has struck back with a vengeance. But most shocking is the fact that a large group of people, some of them prominent figures who witnessed the political massacres in the past, now choose to side with or justify the recent coup. This phenomenon indicates how cleverly the military and the elite class have been in manipulating the propaganda and how weak the popular will is. In my opinion, Thai people, regardless of their ideology or class, have yet to realize how important military reform is for the democratization of Thailand. When there is unrest or instability in the country, people still look to the military as the last resort before beginning all over again. When looking back, Thai people seldom came out to protest immediately after a coup, be it 1991 or 2006. There were some protests following 2014 coup, but on a smaller scale in comparison to the 1992 or 2010 uprisings.
Do you think Thailand still needs military conscription?
I agree with the movements which are now opposing conscription. Unlike South Korea, Thailand is not in a state of war. We have no conflicts with any neighbouring countries as serious as, say, Japan vs. China. The amount of trade crossing our borders is huge and the market for consumables among our neighbours depends more or less upon our exports. So there is no big war looming over Thailand. The Thai military should take this opportunity to streamline and modernize their forces.
On the other hand, Thailand is becoming an aging society. This means we lack young people in the economic system. So, Thai youth should not waste their time with conscription. The government should rather invest its resources in preparing youth for competition in the economic sector.
You said before that the Thai military should not ‘monopolize nationalism and patriotism.’ What do you mean by this?
Thai military mind-set is stuck in the era of the cold war. Their attitude towards people is a mix of fear, distrust, and contempt. They don’t believe that people can think by themselves. They do not tolerate any differences or disagreement. So, when disagreement occurs, which is a normal thing in any lively society, the military tends to see it as instability or a schism in the nation. They put too much stress on conformity. Any difference of opinion must be eliminated. Any non-conformity is viewed as treason, sedition or at best undesirable behaviour. Such attitudes are not healthy for a democratic society.
How unified are the Royal Thai Armed Forces?
Since the career path of any military officer in Thai army depends not on a meritocratic system, but largely on his/her connections, we should not expect unity in such an institution. Contrary to the common belief of many Thai people, competition does not entail any discord in an organization, but cronyism does. If everyone is promoted based on his/her merits, there is not much to resent. Despite their frequent demand for the people to be unified, the military itself has never been unified. They are always divided by classes, groups, forces and connections. If you read Thai newspapers from 30-40 years back until now, you would see that discord among high-ranking officers happens all the time and it still seriously affects Thai political life.
As the Thai military is usually criticized for corruption no less than civilian governments, how transparent do you think the Thai military is as an institution?
Thai military has been somewhat like a state within a state for most of the time since the 1932 Revolution. They not only enjoy a status above formal monitoring and financial audits, but are also in a high degree exempt from criticism from the press. Take the GT200 as an example. Imagine if this fake was bought by a civilian government; the press would roar with anger. But the military can easily get away with this and the GT200 is not a rare case in defence procurement.
In most countries with a similar level of social and economic development to Thailand, the military has been brought under civilian control, but this is not the case for Thailand. What do you think are the reasons behind this?
In a wider picture, as Benedict Anderson said, Southeast Asian countries have a common tendency towards authoritarianism. Not a single country in this region has a strong democratic tradition in a liberal Western sense. It seems like ‘strongman rule’ prevails here. But on the other hand, we are seeing unprecedented phenomena in several countries. Myanmar is currently having a general election. There were political protests in Malaysia and Singapore recently. Negotiations are going on between the government and the secessionist movement in the Philippines. It seems that the tradition of strongman rule is beginning to decline in this region. Unfortunately, Thailand is going in the opposite direction. There are certainly many factors behind this. In my opinion, Thai people and many important institutions, including the military, the bureaucracy, the religion (Theravada Buddhism in Thailand), and the monarchy cannot adapt to rapid change in the era of globalization. So they try to push the country backwards. That’s why we have heard the incredible ideas such as “freezing” or “shutting down” the country.
Many people argue that the military government can get things done quicker and more efficiently than civilian governments. What do you think about such statement?
It is true in a sense. If the elite wants to implement a neoliberal regime, no government would do better than the junta. The swift and decisive policy-making process of the current government is the systematic dispossession of the lower class of their resources, be it in rural or urban areas. The junta is pushing Special Economic Zones (SEZ) with all its might. So, in the eyes of the upper class and the corporations, no government is better than the military government.
Do you think it is possible to reform Thai politics without military reform?
Thai politics underwent reforms a few times, after popular uprisings in 1973 and 1992. We had quite a good constitution in 1997. Now all the efforts are gone because of the recent coup d’état. So political reform without military reform is out of the question. One is not possible without the other, since the military are one of the crucial players in Thailand’s political arena. The spotlight of reform must focus on the players behind the curtain. Make them come to the fore and let the people decide.