Friday, May 8, 2009

Why Generals have such a strong hold in Thai society

"Shadow play", my husband commented when I briefed him about the Sonthi assassination plot, "Thailand's politics has many levels of complexities not easily understood by outsiders."

I was explaining to him why Thanpuying Viriya can wield so much power in Thai politics. (BTW, can someone knowledgeable about Thai politics tell me: there was one "Khunying" or hi-so lady who was well known for being an arms dealer. Is this the same person, or what was her name?)

My husband once wrote a paper about the role of Generals in Thai politics in his NUS days when we had just first met. His classmate and good friend was a Thai General. So he knew something more than I did, or sometimes it's the fresh eyes of someone a bit removed from it all that can catch certain things we in the midst of can't see. (He's not a Thai national.)

Most people who have observed Thai politics for some time know about the vicous cycle we go through with coup d'├ętat, appointed government, elections, corrupted politicians, and coup d'├ętat once again. A naive conclusion would be that we have a tendancy to like dictators, strong men, etc. Not so....

If you really dig deep and follow the relationships of the Generals, you'd understand what makes a coup succesful or not are the relationships among certain cliques of Generals. The twists and turns of the aborted coup of 1981 would be a good example among others. "Cliques?", you may ask, "How's that?" Not so obvious is also the fact that in a country of only 60plus million with forces of about 300,000 we have around a hundred Generals. Isn't that absurd? Why do we have so many Generals?

You see, the military is like one of the oldest bureaucracies in Thailand older than the bureaucracy which is pretty old itself. People who enter the military service have paid for education, housing, guaranteed employment and job advancement for life, like a bureaucracy, but better (especially the housing and education part). The "modern" armed forces were set up in 1852 by King Mongkut but the heart that is intertwined with a military mind goes back several hundred years when Kings were also exceptional warriors, or exceptional warriors could become King, the most recent being the general that founded Bangkok and modern Thailand. Let's also not forget that it was the military that was behind Thailand's change from Absolute Monarch to Constitutional Monarchy. Their legitimacy to political power is engrained in the minds of military cadets from the first moments of their training.

The Military Academy is, however, the main culprit in why we can't rid ourselves of generals who feel they have political legitimacy. Class relationships are everything in a Thai student's life. It is why parents are willing to pay so much "additional" entrance fees to get their children in select school, because it ensures their kid's social circle for life. These circles are effective ways to get businesses moving, finding you that reliable doctor and lawyer and what not. The military class relationships tops all by being the forces that can define national government.

I had once thought, well, these Generals were all getting old and will eventually fade away, and maybe we can put hope in our new generation of soldiers who would be professionally trained to be just solders and not hope to be coup leaders. I was once optimistic that Thailand had evolved out of that vicious cycle of coups and elections but my hopes were obviously dashed by the coup of 2006. Then came the yellow shirt/red shirt face off, more power to the Generals.

The often not spoken about damage that Thaksin has done to Thailand, apart from a long list of unpardonable things, is that he had sparked hope and taught to the police cadets or other police strong men that maybe they too could become "One" in the country. I also wonder about the line of relationships that he has bought in the Thai bureaucracy that will try to trip good policies initiated by any well meaning government that will take time to wash out and hence make or politics fragile for some time to come.

Maybe I will write a blog about what makes the common mind of a Thai police.

Just some thoughts from one of the silent golden majority who abhors political demonstrations but have a strong opinion about the mess politics has done to our country. So please don't be too harsh in your comments.

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