The May 1992 Uprising and the Prospect of Democratic Development

The downfall of General Suchinda has again raised one of the important questions which arises whenever there is a breakdown of authoritarian rule: is Thailand going to have a stable and long-lasting democracy? The answer is probably no. It is difficult to anticipate sustained democratisation. One reason is that changes have yet to take place in the military establishment to make it more conducive to democratic development. The concept of civilian control is still unacceptable within the armed forces. More important, the military continues to insist on its political guardian role, which implies a right to intervene whenever it feels that national security is threatened. During the 1980s there were signs that the army was about to accept a civilian-dominated regime, but as one expert on Thai security affairs said, the change in the military’s political thinking was ‘in a very formative stage, incoherent and inconsistent’ (Snitwongse 1990:103). Thus, when the Class 5 Group (the fifth graduating class from the Military Academy under the West Point curriculum) assumed leadership in the RTA, liberal attitudes in the army began to erode. Class 5 officers led by Suchinda and Issarapong Noonpakdi, the former army chief, are not known for their liberal political ideas. The group was first formed to counter the Young Turks group, but later transformed itself into a powerful pressure group to work for the benefit and promotion of its members. The group has firm control of the army and has not been much affected by the pro-democracy protest and the downfall of Suchinda.

Having been resurrected, Thai civil society now poses a real threat to the military. The business community is expanding and becoming more complex. Several professional and societal groups, including doctors, lawyers and teachers’ associations, are demanding an end to the military’s political involvement. It can be argued that these popular uprisings have been largely a phenomenon of Bangkok and other major urban areas, and that they are unlikely to have a strong impact in the country. However, it has always been the urban people who have led public opinion and successfully pressed for political reforms. The May 1992 uprising was a product of the politicisation of urban groups. Now that authoritarian rule is fading, the question of whether democratisation will be consolidated remains to be answered. The military establishment is still unified and reform from within cannot be expected in the immediate future. In the long run, if the politicisation of societal groups continues, military reform will become inevitable, and as a result political democracy will be given more chance to consolidate itself.

The triumph in the September 1992 election of the pro-democracy forces – comprising Chuan’s Democratic Party, the New Aspiration Party (NAP), the Palang Dham Party and Solidarity – and the subsequent establishment of the democratic government led by Chuan, marked another important development in civil-military relations. The armed forces have pledged to support the government and to remain in their barracks. The military leaders once again have reiterated that the military will not interfere in political affairs; modernisation programs and professional development will be their main priorities. Chuan also recognises that civil-military relations are a delicate matter and civilian control can hardly be achieved if the prime minister and defence minister are unacceptable to the armed forces.

To placate the military, Chuan appointed a retired and respected general to head the Defense ministry. In addition, he has been very cautious in dealing with technical matters such as national security policy, strategic issues, defence budgets, and military personnel appointments, in the hope that the relationship is not jeopardised. Despite these efforts, however, the relationship continues to be delicate and a lot needs to be done to strengthen it.

Among other things, the civilian government must improve its efficiency, accountability and stability. The Thai political experience suggests that the fragility of democratic governments encourages military intervention. To change the military mind-set into a more democratic one, the civilian democratic government must prove itself strong and responsible.

Democratic reforms should be carried out gradually. The military and other conservative elements are not in favour of radical changes. The vote by the military-dominated Senate in March 1994 against the government parties’ bill to reduce the number of the senators showed that the military, though supporting the government, would not let the democratisation process go too far or too fast. The pro-democracy groups which advocate more drastic reform should keep in mind that the military and the conservatives are still influential and control a variety of political resources. Even the urban middle class, which supported the pro-democracy groups during the May 1992 event, does not agree with radical political reform. The politics of compromise is likely to be essential during the initial stage of democratisation.

Democratisation involves institutionalisation of the competitive process by which the people elect their leaders. This can be done by allowing continuity of the representative government and elections. The military should learn how to tolerate the democratic processes and play the game by the rules. The more elections Thailand has, the more developed the competitive process will be. Once the process is institutionalised, coups will find no place in the Thai political system.