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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 6, 2012

Thai military regains lost political ground
By John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano

As the waters from Thailand's recent devastating floods recede, they reveal a distinctly changed political landscape. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's governing Puea Thai party, which held a commanding position in the immediate aftermath of its landslide electoral victory last July, is now on the defensive on various fronts as it deals with public perceptions that it badly mismanaged the crisis.

The Royal Thai Army (RTA), which has suffered a steady decline in popular support since overthrowing former prime minister and Yingluck's elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 coup, has now regained much of that public prestige and self-confidence due

to its comparatively efficient and professional response to the flooding.

Last year's election, held in the aftermath of a 2010 lethal military crackdown on pro-Thaksin street demonstrators, left the army demoralized and divided. In public, the generals treated Puea Thai's victory as they would any other electoral result. In private, many senior officers felt that an ultimate battle with Thaksin's political movement had been lost and that it was only a matter of time before many of country's institutions - including the military - were fundamentally remade by Puea Thai.

The only thing that may have allowed the generals to retain a modicum of their previous post-coup power and prestige was the fortuitous agreement they quietly concluded with Puea Thai before the election under which Thaksin interlocutors promised not to purge officers who had backed the 2006 coup while in return the generals vowed not to undermine any Puea Thai-led government after the polls.

With the political shift caused by the floods, a rough stand-off has emerged between the RTA and its political allies and Yingluck's Puea Thai-led government. Normally this would lead to gridlock, but the problems now faced by Thailand are so huge that both sides seem to recognize that they must cooperate to overcome them. That's been seen publicly in the respectful way in which both Yingluck and RTA commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha have recently addressed each other in press interviews.

These pleasantries, however, should not be interpreted as indication of a fundamental compromise over the direction of the country. Both sides will undoubtedly keep their long-term interests clearly in focus as issues of national reconciliation return to the political center stage. Yingluck's government has indicated its intention to push through constitutional changes that many believe will be designed specifically to give Thaksin amnesty for his criminal conviction and allow him to return to Thailand a free man. He is at present in self-imposed exile after being convicted in 2008 on corruption charges.

The difficulties of dealing with the tremendous damage the flooding has caused the country's economy, infrastructure and international reputation within a political system that has been in crisis for several years seems likely to compel a level of cooperation in the near term. In addition, preparing for the shock to the system that will inevitably come when 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej finally passes from the scene requires that both sides prepare for the worst and begin to exercise more caution.

Faced with such an uncertain and potentially treacherous future, it is somewhat ironic that the army owes its recent success in restoring its public reputation through its professional handling of the floods by reverting to its past, specifically to the counter-insurgency campaign it waged against the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) almost 30 years ago.

The army's initial response to the insurgency was more often brutal than thoughtful, but by the early 1980s an effective national counter-insurgency doctrine (Prime Minister's Order 66/2325) had been devised and employed that later proved to be a major factor in the ultimate defeat of the CPT. The doctrine emphasized attention to local conditions, a detailed knowledge of the problems faced by villagers, close coordination by army field units with local officials down to the village level, as well as with other central government agencies.

Since virtually the entire senior hierarchy of the army is now composed of veterans of this campaign, and the doctrine itself has been a core element in the RTA's officer education system for many years, it has become something akin to the collective DNA of the army officer corps.

When responding to the recent floods, and in the absence of strong civilian direction by Yingluck's government, the RTA simply reverted to what it knows best.

In this case, the RTA's tradition of paying attention to local officials and the needs of villages and towns was exactly what was needed to deal with the disaster. The RTA functioned as the agency of last resort throughout every flooded locality in the kingdom for hundreds of thousands of affected people by rescuing villagers trapped by flood waters, working around the clock to build sandbag dykes and levees, and delivering food and water to people stranded by the high waters.

(It is also somewhat ironic that the reason PM Order 66/2325 was never publicly mentioned during the flood relief effort was likely because its author, former premier and army commander General Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, is currently a member and senior advisor of the Puea Thai party.)

Each of the RTA's four Army Regions established its own flood relief operations center, which were not just inter-connected through the main Army Operations Center in Bangkok but also with other government agencies and nongovernmental organizations. There was initially some confusion within the army where only engineer and specialist units were committed to the early phases of the relief effort, but this was quickly rectified and entire infantry regiments were later deployed.

Tens of thousands of soldiers worked reflexively on whatever was needed to save or evacuate a town, village or urban district on the verge of being flooded. The key to their relative success, however, was not simple numbers but the close coordination between local commanders and the village chiefs and mayors of towns located in the flood zones.

Much of what the army did was to simply apply common sense ideas, but in the midst of a crisis even basic operations can be difficult to implement on a large scale without common procedures and understanding - exactly what the army has developed over the years through PM Order 66/2325's civil affairs doctrine.

None of this detracts from the RTA's many deep-rooted deficiencies. It also suffers from the same problems that plague other Thai institutions, namely political interference, corruption, favoritism in promotions, lack of realistic training and poor equipment maintenance.

But the RTA's many critics who emphasize only those problems frequently fail to acknowledge the other reality exposed by the floods: the large numbers of officers and soldiers who serve with a genuine strong sense of national duty.

Royal affiliation
Another key part of the RTA's flood relief operations was its treatment of the effort as a royal project. Royal projects in a Thailand context refer in general to activities funded and administered directly by the royal family outside of normal government channels, usually infrastructure and livelihood programs.

This emphasis has generated a certain amount of criticism, portrayed by critics as both an unnecessary and overtly political move while implying that the civilian government's efforts were inadequate. However, the same decision was taken in the early 1980s during the counter-insurgency campaign, when due to corruption in both normal civilian and military channels relief supplies intended for poor villagers in contested areas rarely if ever arrived.

By designating an activity as a royal project, it was administered by close and trusted subordinates of the royal family who could be counted upon to work honestly and diligently. Similar calculations applied during the recent flooding, when the RTA staff received reports of relief supplies being diverted by unscrupulous government officials.

Through these decisions, the position of army commander Prayuth has been greatly strengthened, both among the general public and within the army. This is the result not just of the RTA's flood relief efforts but also Prayuth's personal conduct. He has bent to show deference to Yingluck's civilian leadership and responded positively to her crisis management requests.

One prominent example was Prayuth's voluntarily stepping forward to publicly accept a 10% budget cut to help fund post-flood rehabilitation and reconstruction. He also kept his public comments during the crisis focused only on the mission at hand and did not wander off message into political topics, including accusations by Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters that he intended to stage a "water coup" to overthrow Yingluck's embattled administration.

Just as significant is Prayuth's renewed standing within the RTA's officer corps and the increased unity this achieved within the RTA. Until now, Prayuth was regarded by many officers as a somewhat divisive figure by unfairly favoring certain officers, especially his own pre-cadet Academy Class 12 classmates as well as cronies from his days at the 21st Infantry Regiment, for promotions and key assignments.

Prayuth's professional leadership during the flooding and the RTA's renewed sense of self-confidence resulting from an improved standing with the Thai public has to some degree changed these intra-institutional perceptions, with potentially important implications for Thai politics.

Elected officials with Puea Thai will have likely taken notice of the shift. While there is no indication the RTA aims for a return to its previous domination of politics, the RTA's rehabilitated image will make the men in green formidable opponents for the internal government battles over resource allocation that are sure to emerge in the months ahead.

The recent public show of unity between Yingluck's government and the RTA during the floods does not represent a fundamental reconciliation between the two sides of Thailand's political divide. Rather, it is indicative of a political calculation that cooperation in the near-term is in the interests of both sides. Any number of contingencies could, and almost certainly will, bring this cooperation to an end in the months ahead.

When this inevitably occurs, Yingluck and her Puea Thai party will as a result of the RTA's handling of the floods have to contend with a much more cohesive and unified army than existed just a few months ago.

John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano spent several years in Thailand while on active duty with the US Army. Both were trained as Foreign Area Officers specializing in Southeast Asia and graduated from the Royal Thai Army's Command and General Staff College. They are now retired and the views expressed here are their own.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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