Achieving, building and sustaining democratic civilian control has been a critical challenge for Thailand’s political development. Since the 1932 putsch against monarchical absolutism, the country has suffered continuing military coups, resulting in the interruption and stalling of democratic development. As a result, civil society forces in Thailand have remained nascent, while the monarchy and security sector have persisted in possessing enormous power. This security sector–composed of the military and police–has been implicated in numerous human rights abuses while often working to lessen political space for civil society.
Knights of the Realm is an attempt to place Thailand’s security forces in perspective both historically and in their present day activities. The book argues that a long tradition of military and police influence in Thai politics continues to hinder political development. This has especially been true because the mission and identity of the military have never been associated with the promotion of democracy. The study specifically focuses on four questions. First, how is Thailand’s armed forces organized? Second, what historical factors have contributed to the current level of military influence in Thailand and who are the relevant military officers today? Third, what has been the history of Thailand’s police? Fourth, what is the state of security sector–society relations in the case of Thailand’s deep south?
In addressing these inquiries, the book examines the history of Thailand’s security forces back to the era prior to 1932. It then scrutinizes the coup-strewn era of 1932 to 1992, which ultimately cemented close ties between the monarchy and military. The book then reviews the past twenty years, in which two coups toppled civilian governments, bucking the trend in most of the world’s emerging democracies whereby soldiers return to the barracks to make way for the advent of democratization. In 1988, after eight years in office, the unelected prime minister (and retired general) Prem Tinsulanonda stepped aside to allow the leader of the party winning that year’s general election to take his seat. Yet in 1991, against the trend of democratic transitions, General Suchinda Kraprayoon usurped control of the country, successfully maneuvering himself to become prime minister in 1992. But when, following the Black May massacre of 1992 and subsequent regal scolding, Suchinda was compelled to resign from his position, it appeared that the sun was finally shining on the ascendancy of Thai pluralism. Thereupon the country embarked upon fourteen years of unimpeded elected governments, the broadening of decentralization, and enhanced input by grassroots organizations. But the power of security forces had only diminished under the surface.
The 1997 constitution–a high-water mark–seemed to mark the institutionalization of popular participation in Thai politics. Then the election of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 appeared to demonstrate that the use of democratic processes could bring about policies appealing to the poor majority–policies (e.g., 30 baht medical care) that the rural masses had voted for. As such, a greater number of Thais now not only participated in democracy but could and did see its value. Yet Thaksin himself demonstrated certain authoritarian tendencies (such as the 2003 war on drugs). He also sought to elevate the power of the police relative to the armed forces and proved willing to politicize the military. His political tinkering with the military, tiffs with Privy Council chair Prem Tinsulanonda, and appearance of disrespect for the king eventually triggered the coup against him. The 2007 Constitution and recent regulations have meanwhile heightened the armed forces’ prerogatives. At the end of 2008, the military again influenced the direction of governance, facilitating the formation of the Abhisit Vejjajiva ruling coalition. Clearly, the armed forces have returned to play a leading role in Thai politics–as illustrated by two coups and at least one coalitional manipulation since 1988. The police, meanwhile, have acted as another security force with its own level of influence across the land.
This volume aims to provide a means of accessing and understanding two often opaque institutions that need to be considered in conjunction with the ebb and flow of Thai politics: soldiers and police. Civilian ascendancy over soldiers and police has been on a negative trajectory since the September 19, 2006, military coup d’état. Nor does it appear that the power of the armed forces and police will fade from the political scene anytime soon. In 2013 soldiers and police continue to exert great power–and there are enormous splits within and among Thai security institutions. The message is clear: not only does Thailand’s security sector matter, it matters a lot more than most other Thai political actors. Such tidings provide meager grist for those who consider uniformed usurpers a phenomenon of the past and any recent informal intervention a mere anomaly. Democracy and civilian control will remain weak in Thailand as long as the security sector is relatively insulated from elected civilian leaders. There needs to be much more of a push in Thailand toward reining in security forces. With this in mind, it is hoped that the work in hand sparks greater interest in Thailand’s armed forces among scholars and persons concerned with the current trajectory of democracy in Thailand.
Arisa Ratanapinsiri received her Master of Arts in Political Science in 2012. She is a specialist on Thailand’s police.
Eric Haanstad earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2008. He is currently working as a researcher at Freiburg University in Germany. His research interests focus on Thailand’s police as well as transnational ssecurity.
Napisa Waitoolkiat received her Ph.D. in Political Science in 2006. In 2007 she was a postdoctoral fellow in Singapore as well as Washington, D.C. Napisa is today a lecturer at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, Faculty of Political Science, Chiang Mai, University. Her research interests focus on the politics of emerging democracies in Asia.
Dr. Paul Chambers is concurrently Research Director and Lecturer at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs; Research Affiliate, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), and Research Fellow, the German Institute of Global Area Studies (GIGA). He has resided in Thailand for almost 20 years. Dr Chambers’ research interests focus on the insurgency in southern
Dr. Srisompob Jitpiromsi is currently assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, Prince of Songkhla University, Thailand, and is the Director of Deep South Watch, a watchdog organization monitoring the conflict in southern Thailand.