The Future of Thai Civil-Military Relations: In Desperate Need of Legitimacy


Thailand experienced its first successful military coup in 1932. Since then, Thailand has been one of the most coup-prone countries in the world. The military has enjoyed, at different times, both implicit and explicit support from the palace to legitimize their entry into politics. However, this legitimizing force came directly from the revered personality of King Bhumibol, and with his death after more than 70 years on the throne on October 13th the military is in desperate need of a new source of legitimacy if it is to maintain its influential position in Thai politics.

It is not uncommon for countries like Thailand to have militaries that are highly active in politics. Their military has had an internal orientation since its inception. Originally created to deter colonial expansion into its territory from the French and the British, the Army was utilized in the mid-to-late-nineteenth Century to displace regional rivals to the king and set up a centralized bureaucracy. The country faces no serious external threat, leaving the military free to focus internally. Furthermore, the legacy of the United States’ presence and aid to Thailand during the Cold War has left the military with substantial power and patronage networks.

However, merely the existence of conditions conducive to military intervention is insufficient for coups, or active influence and coercion over politics; that is, continued military involvement in Thailand is not guaranteed. As cases all over the world have shown, the Thai military will need new opportunities to intervene or to justify its continued control over politics.

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Opportunities play a major, if underrated, role in military interventions. Most often, opportunities present themselves in the form of weak and unpopular civilian governments or a substantial threat exists and the military claims it is the only institution capable of managing it. European militaries leading up to, and during, World War I drastically increased their influence over their respective civilian governments. Significant economic crises, both domestic and international, also open doors to military intervention.

Opportunities come in the form of either legitimacy crises for the civilian government or dramatic relative popularity shifts. This is important to understanding the future of civil-military relations in Thailand, it has dictated the relationship in the past. Almost all Thai military entries into politics has follow such an opportunity: In 1932 the King was mismanaging an economic crisis and the coups in 2006 and 2014 resulted from on-going political crises (just to name a few).

Argentina experienced military interventions in 1930 and 1943, both of which came after a precipitous drop in the civilian governments popularity. In 1930, the Great Depression hit Argentina and the government, which depended heavily on the distribution of resources to elites to maintain support, saw its popularity plummet and the military marched on Buenos Aires. World War II policies from the United States to protect domestic production put the Argentine economy in a significantly uncompetitive position. Further missteps by the civilian government led to another military coup.

Thailand is unique in the fact that there is a clear alliance between the military and the palace. The military provides the muscle; the King provides the legitimacy. At times the King has provided overt support for the military’s interventions. At other times, the support has been subtler. In 2006, all the Thai military’s guns and tanks had yellow ribbons tied to them, a clear nod to the King and the Thai people saw it as royal support.

It is this unique feature of Thai civil-military relations that puts the future of those relations into question. The very nature of the Thai military’s involvement in politics must change if it is to maintain its position of influence. This is the case for two reasons.

First,  the longer the military stays in power, the lower its popularity will become. A most predictable outcome of being in power is the gradual, or not so gradual, decline in popularity. Civilian politicians face this, and military juntas face this to a greater degree. Civilian control was quickly reestablished after Argentina’s military coup in 1930 because of this predictable drop in popularity. The years after the end of World War II in Argentina also show a clear cycle: drop in civilian popularity, military intervention, then a subsequent drop in military popularity. The Thai Junta’s popularity will drop and will eventually face a crisis of its own.

Second, when it seeks to intervene again in the future, its traditional source of legitimacy will be absent. Bhumibol was highly revered and this image took time to cultivate. Bhumibol’s successor, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has already cultivated an image, an incredibly negative one. Bhumibol’s son has insulted almost every aspect of Thai culture and identity. The military and political elite will try to improve his reputation with the Thai people. At best, it will be a weak and marginal success. What happens when the military attempts to intervene again will define Thai politics for generations.

Scenario 1: Coercion replaces legitimacy. A quick way to determine if a state is viewed as legitimate by its people is to look at how much those people are being coerced. Citizens remain in order if they accept the ruling government, or if they are being coerced into order. Arrests because of violating lesé majesté laws has increased significantly since the 2014 coup. This is an indication that the military is exercising this option. However, lesé majesté laws protect against defamation of the King and they were easier to enforce when the King was a popular one. Now that the King will be highly unpopular, the people are less likely to accept its harsh enforcement. Coercion is certainly effective, but it is likely that such heavy-handed tactic will draw criticism, and possibly sanctions, from abroad. This could harm the economy leading to the exact type of crisis that ends regimes. The military will want to avoid this.

Scenario 2: The regime keeps Vajiralongkorn in the background and out of the public’s view, relying instead on the late King’s memory to legitimate their rule. When Lenin died, the Communist regime in the Soviet Union kept Lenin’s image around indefinitely and Stalin routinely used Lenin’s memory to legitimize his own actions. Current regimes often venerate the images and memory of past leaders (see also North Korea) to legitimate present policies. This option is preferable for the military, to the extent that it’s possible. They have already utilized this strategy to some extent. The military, not the Prince himself, announced that he would not take over the throne for at least a year in order to grieve for his father (who will be laid in state for a year).

Scenario 3: The palace loses prestige, the military is starved for legitimacy, and democratic institutions become the primary path to and from political power. As great as this would be for the long-term sustainability of the Thai state and the civil rights of the Thai people, getting there would be anything but. True democratic transitions are often bloody and unstable. They’ve certainly been that way for Thailand in the past. Furthermore, the reinstitution of a democratic process could open the door for Thailand’s deep political divisions to compete as they have in the past. The Thai military has had so many opportunities to intervene because the civilian ruling elite refuse to accept the outcomes of elections, which almost always hands them defeats. It’s likely that this political crisis would cause a deadlock again.

Scenario 4: Some combination of the above scenarios. The Thai military will utilize any strategy it can in order to maintain its current position of power, knowing that if they exit politics this time, it is unlikely they will have the popular support to reenter it. The constitutional referendum that grants the military substantial influence in politics won with a clear majority. Royal succession won’t occur for at least a year, and elections have been delayed for another year. If nothing else, this will give the military precious time to improve the economy and plan their next move.

Adam Wunische is a PhD student at Boston College studying civil-military relations.
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