A role reversal for Myanmar and Thailand is starkly in the making, as concerns about militarism seem to continue to migrate from the former to the latter at a speedy rate. Recent developments towards democracy in Myanmar have been impressive. After several decades of repression under military rule, a civilian government today rules Myanmar, while the military is retreating into the barracks.
In the opposite direction, Thailand, once a beacon of democracy, has taken many steps back towards authoritarianism. The military staged a coup that overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. Thailand has since sunk into political turmoil, accompanied by massive human rights violations and a shrinking democratic space.
Behind the rise of Thai militarism and the diminished military’s influence in Myanmar’s politics is the generational shift within the two countries’ armies. Each of the new generation in the military in Thailand and Myanmar possesses different ideas about politics and approaches toward safeguarding their political interests.
The political development in Myanmar can serve as a lesson for Thailand should the latter seek to achieve a breakthrough in its deep-seated political deadlock.
Throughout the Cold War, the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, successfully exploited the notion of “national security” to justify its rule with an iron fist, using ethnic insurgencies as a pretext. But after the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) entered into ceasefire agreements with certain ethnic groups in the late 1980s, the junta turned its attention to the domestic opposition led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The power struggle between the junta and Suu Kyi came to define Myanmar’s politics throughout the 1990s. Meanwhile, SLORC was reincarnated into a more gentle self under the name, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to indicate the junta’s new political agendas. One of these agendas was a roadmap toward democracy implemented in 2003 amid deep suspicion about the real commitment of the military regime.
It was this period in which a generational shift occurred in the Tatmadaw. Younger soldiers witnessed the state’s peace-making efforts with ethnic groups and served through the transition toward democracy. S0me were sent to participate in military exercises overseas, thus absorbing new ideas about the corporateness and professionalism of the military seen elsewhere.
Senior General Than Shwe and his men of the older generation were unable to continue with oppression and violence amid immense international pressures and harsh sanctions. Moreover, the speed of domestic political and economic liberalization and the wave of democratization that swept across Southeast Asia at the dawn of the 21st century represented key factors behind the withdrawal of the military in Myanmar’s politics.
In 2011, the rise of the new army chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, from a younger generation, assisted in consolidating the democratization process. Although the military still holds 25 percent of the parliamentary seats thus maintaining its political influence in the legislative branch, the NLD’s victory in the 2015 election emphasized the fact that the military’s grip on power had loosened. The footage of Suu Kyi shaking hands with Min Aung Hlaing symbolized a re-opening of the civil-military channel of communication.
In other words, the Tatmadaw, in preserving some of its political weight, was willing to adopt an accommodationist approach through working with a civilian regime. At least for now, peace has returned to the political domain in Myanmar, made possible by political bargaining and compromise.
In Thailand, the older generation in the army faded and was replaced by a new type of military men. The emergence of the 21st Infrantry regiment, better known as the Queen’s Guards, marked a generational shift in the army, which was not necessarily less conservative or more open-minded. The political circumstances surrounding the generational shift explain why the Queen’s Guards have behaved differently than their counterparts in Myanmar.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned for almost 70 years. Through his era, the king developed intimate ties with the army. Together they restructured Thai politics into one which saw civilian governments susceptible to the domination of power of the monarchy and the military.
But his magical reign is coming to an end. The uncertainties over the royal transition have driven the new military elites to become even more totalitarian so as to deal with their perceived political adversaries. Hence, two consecutive coups, in 2006 and 2014, were designed to eliminate the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political proxies.
They have also moved to manipulate the charter to defend their political interests, by empowering certain pro-military institutions, including the Senate and the Constitutional Court, to counterbalance future civilian governments. Essentially, members of the Queen’s Guards are reading Thai politics from a zero-sum game perspective. They fear that after the royal transition, should the military not be in control of politics, their long-held interests would be robbed in the face of new political forces led by the Thaksin camp.
The governing body of the Thai junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is eerily similar to the old SLORC of Myanmar whose top mission was to crush its enemies rather than to pursue a meaningful dialogue with them. In Thailand today, the NCPO shows that it is serious in cracking down on dissents. Civil liberties have been stripped. The media faces stiff censorship. And cases of lese-majeste, the crime of insulting the monarchy, are skyrocketing.
It has taken Myanmar decades to accomplish its political compromise. A generational shift within the Tatmadaw allowed a new perspective on the role of the military in politics to take root. In contrast, for Thailand, the political stalemate shows no sign of ending. After the royal transition, the position of the new king could still be challenged.
Without eliminating the old attitude within the Thai army, political compromise will remain an illusion. Thailand could end up being like the Myanmar of yesteryear.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.