The Military, Society, and Democratisation

More important, however, was the liberalisation and democratisation at the national level. After the 1977 coup, Prime Minister Kriangsak promised to promulgate a permanent constitution within a year and hold a general election a few months later. Pressure for liberalisation came from a group of middle-ranking officers, known as ‘The Thai Young Turks’, which was formed within the army after the October 1973 uprising. Their demand for democratic reform was less ideological than pragmatic: they favoured strong leadership and coups, but liberalisation and democratisation were acceptable if they could resolve national conflict and promote political stability.

The twelve years of liberalisation and parliamentary rule after 1979 would not have been possible without the initiative of the Kriangsak government. Despite liberalisation Thailand still faced instability, partly because the military continued to maintain strong political influence throughout that period. The military regime initiated liberalisation because it wanted to ease the political tension which had resulted from the rightist policies of the Thanin government. But assurance had to be given to the military that its corporate interests would not be endangered. Open politics in this period allowed representative institutions to develop and gradually made inroads on the military-dominated regime. Coups staged in 1981 and 1985 showed that the military was disturbed by the decline of the bureaucratic polity and the development of political parties. The army’s attempt in 1983 to have the constitution amended to allow serving military officers and civil servants to hold cabinet portfolios was further evidence of this. (The 1978 constitution permitted active government and military officers to assume political posts for four years only after the 1979 general election.)

Prime Minister Prem, who took the helm of the country from 1981 to 1989, had to maintain a delicate balance. It was a period during which liberalisation and democratisation were put to the test. Although the military’s power was waning, it was still powerful and was a major force in the state. But as civil society was becoming more influential, the army had to review its role in the political arena. While factions like the Young Turks accepted coups as a strategy, others believed that they had to play the game by the rules. They agreed that since the Thai political system was in a transitional phase, the military could not withdraw itself from the political scene; it had to take part in politics to make democratisation possible. The army’s role as political broker and supporter of the Prem government was emphasised. Nevertheless the military was not willing to let political parties take full control of the state. Army leaders were involved in forming the government in order to make sure that the prime minister and other key cabinet members were on their side. Political parties were not allowed to interfere in matters of the military’s domain such as the defence budget, counter-insurgency operations, personnel reshuffles, and control of the electronic media. Stability during this liberalisation period, though delicate, was maintained because the boundary between the military and civilian politicians was observed by both sides.

The breakdown of the democratisation process in 1991 and the pro-democracy protests against Prime Minister General Suchinda Kraprayoon in mid May 1992 showed that although the military was able to seize state power, as it did in the February 1991 coup, civil society was strong enough to curb the military’s influence in government. The 1991 military intervention reflected the armed forces’ disaffection with the increasing influence of political parties and the civil society’s attempt to exert more control over the military. It did not meet resistance because the Chatichai government had lost the support of the people. Nevertheless, when General Suchinda resigned from the army and assumed the premiership after the April 1992 election the civil society was able to force the former army chief to step down. Opposition parties and other pro-democracy groups launched a protest with the support of the urban middle class, including businessmen, intellectuals, and people from various professions. It was the biggest protest witnessed in Thailand since the student uprising in 1973. The demands of the pro-democracy groups were strengthened by the ruthless suppression of the demonstration by the military, which led to stronger public condemnation.

One of the problems of democratisation in Thailand has been that, because of a long period of bureaucratic and military domination, a democratic regime often has difficulty establishing legitimacy in relation to the traditional political culture. Economic and social changes in recent years have produced a new urban, educated middle class which subscribes to the principles of democracy; but the possibility of an effective democratic government could hardly be expected. The Chatichai government (1989-1991) gained legitimacy because it was popularly elected, but it later lost legitimacy because it could not tackle effectively the corruption in the government. Anand’s government, which succeeded it after the 1991 coup, assumed power without legitimacy because it was appointed by the military junta. But it went on to gain public recognition as one of the most reliable, transparent and efficient governments. The fact that all democratic regimes in Thailand have been weak and inefficient has affected their legitimacy. And if they cannot improve their performance and accountability, their popular support will be easily undermined.

With this in mind, the military has generally preferred a non-partisan prime minister, and has given him full support in order to ensure the government’s stability. This implies a preference, on the part of the army, for effectiveness over legitimacy. After the 1992 general election the military wanted to continue its control of the state and to insulate the state mechanisms from popular forces. What the military leaders did not anticipate was the strength of the civil society. Attempting to force the political parties and the people to accept Suchinda as the government leader was a big mistake. It reflected the inability of the military elite to understand the development of societal groups which were determined to fight for democratisation and a weakening of the political power of the military.