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Norms and Military Interventions

By Jacob I. Ricks

Picture: Joint Chief of Staff meets with Thai Army General

Source: Joint Chiefs of Staff Website

On 10 February 2015, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, with his usual candor, told reporters that “Thailand is different from other countries. If something cannot be solved [by the government], the military will solve it.”[1] This statement embodies a number of assumptions, but perhaps most important for Thailand today is the idea that military intervention is a perfectly legitimate method of overcoming political challenges.

This sentiment rankles many observers, both inside and outside of Thailand. It also raises the old question of civil-military relations, “Why do people with guns obey people without guns?”[2]Responses in both academia and policy circles often draw on Samuel Huntington’s claim that professional soldiers do not engage in politics.[3] Punchada Sirivunnabood and I have tackled this hypothesis in much greater detail elsewhere, demonstrating that the level of professionalism among Thai soldiers is poorly correlated with their desires for an apolitical military.[4] Instead we suggest that the key to a permanently apolitical officer corps may hinge on the development of norms of civilian supremacy over the military. In this blog post I offer some preliminary thoughts on this issue by briefly discussing three indicators of a Thai societal norm justifying military intervention.

First, the Thai military has a long history in politics, which has largely gone unchallenged by society.[5] In January 2014, Punchada and I interviewed ACM Anan Klintha, one of the generals who conducted the 1991 coup in Thailand. He frankly explained that the coup was possible because, “the people believed [in the military], the people obeyed the military, they respected soldiers, it was tradition among Thai people in the past.”[6]

ACM Anan was not mistaken that Thailand has a long tradition of men in uniform taking part in politics, generally uncontested by the people. If we take a brief look at the history of the Prime Minister’s office, we can see that since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, it has been dominated by both former and active military officials.[7] Out of the 30,168 days from 28 June 1932 through 01 February 2015, the office has been filled by an either active or retired military officer for 66.7 percent of the time (20,131 days). The table below highlights these men in green. Historical precedent certainly favors the idea that Thai people accept military men in politics.

Second, we have seen mass mobilization in recent years to push for military intervention. In the same week that Punchada and I interviewed ACM Anan Klintha, protests shut down Bangkok’s streets as Suthep Thaugsuban led supporters on one of his 12 “Final Battles” [8] against the Yingluck Shinawatra government. Protestors against the government called on the military to intervene in politics.[9] Although Suthep initially denied asking for a coup, the repeated requests for the military to side with the protest movement suggested that was his purpose.[10] Later he even claimed to have had long correspondence with military leaders regarding the possibility of a coup.[11] While the protesters who supported Suthep may not have comprised a majority of Thais, their numbers were sufficiently large to signal that at least a significant and vocal minority of Thais support and even desire military interventions.

This brings us to the third piece of evidence for a norm of military intervention: public opinion. In June-July 2007, the World Values Survey organization carried out its first survey in Thailand, asking 1,534 respondents a variety of questions, including two items which help us identify the strength of support in Thai society for military interventions. First, pollsters asked respondents their feelings on having the army rule. Thais were able to choose one of four responses ranging from “Very Good” to “Very Bad.” A second question also addressed the role of the military in democracy. The researchers asked Thais to identify a series of statements on a scale of one to ten, with a ten meaning the sentence reflected “an essential characteristic of democracy” and a one meaning “not an essential characteristic of democracy.” One of the statements read, “The Army Takes Over When Government is Incompetent,” providing a measure of Thai support for military interventions. This survey was repeated in September 2013 with 1,200 respondents. The figures below present the results.

A few things stand out in these charts. First, beginning in 2007, shortly after the 2006 coup, we can see that a large proportion of Thais did feel positively about military rule. In fact, over half of those who answered the question (53.5 percent) said that having the army rule was either “Very Good” or “Fairly Good.” Many respondents also claimed that army intervention during times of poor government was democratic. 36.8 percent of respondents gave a value of six or above, showing that they felt democracy was compatible with military interventions. This indicates widespread acceptance of military interventions in 2007, only about nine months after the coup against Thaksin Shinawatra.

Much had changed by late 2013, though. During this round of the survey, respondents overwhelmingly replied that having the army rule was either “Fairly Bad” or “Very Bad.” Among those who answered, 65.3 percent now felt that rule by the armed forces was negative. The biggest loss on the positive side came from the “Fairly Good” category which dropped from 44.1 percent of respondents to less than 24 percent. The “Very Bad” category, on the other hand, shot up from 8 percent to a full 30 percent of respondents. Nevertheless, a significant minority, approximately 35 percent of those who answered the question, still felt military rule was positive.

Thai views on democracy and the military also shifted. Large gains occurred at either end of the scale with losses occurring in the middle range. The percentage of those who responded at the extreme that army interventions are not democratic doubled from only 8.3 percent in 2007 to 16.6 percent in 2013. The opposite end of the scale, or those who felt army interventions were essential characteristics of democracy, also saw growth from 5.1 percent of respondents in 2007 to 14.2 percent of those who answered in 2013. This indicates that social support for military interventions had grown, but it also now had a stronger opposition.

These survey results, combined with the historical tradition of military rule and existence of a vocal and mobilized minority who support armed forces interventions, do show that large numbers of Thai people still approve of a political military. We could take this as evidence that a “coup culture,”[12] or norm of military involvement in politics, does hold sway in Thailand.

The shift between 2007 and 2013 in the WVS numbers, though, suggests that changes are happening among the Thai public. It seems that the military’s 2006 intervention did little to endear it to the hearts and minds of Thais. While many factors were at play during the interceding years, it would appear that the traditional norm of tacit support for military intervention is fading. Increasing polarization of opinions about the role of the military in democracy is also emerging. A norm of civilian supremacy may be evolving among a large sector of the population. If it is, the military will have an increasingly difficult time justifying its continued political role. As ACM Anan Klintha explained, “[if] the majority of the people won’t accept [a coup], then it can’t be done.”[13]

[1] Toru Takahasi, “Thai Leader Pledges to Weed Out Corruption Before Election,” Nikkei Asian Review, 10 February 2015. Accessible:

[2] Stephan Holmes, “Lineages of the Rule of Law,” in Democracy and the Rule of Law, eds. Jose Maria Maravall and Adam Przeworski (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 24.

[3] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1957). See also Suzanne Nielsen, “Review Article: American Civil-Military Relations Today: The Continuing Relevance of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Soldier and the State,International Affairs 88(2012): 369-376.

[4] Punchada Sirivunnabood and Jacob Ricks, “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military,” Working Paper (2015). See also Surachart Bamrungsak, “Thailand: Military Professionalism at the Crossroads,” in Military Professionalism in Asia: Conceptual and Empirical Perspectives, ed. Muthiah Alagappa (Honolulu, HI: East-West Center, 2001), 77-91. also James Ockey, “Thailand’s Professional Soldiers and Coup-Making: The Coup of 2006,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 19(2007), 95-127.

[5] Exceptions did occur in 1973 and 1992.

[6] ACM Anan Klintha, interview by authors, Bangkok, 28 January 2014.

[7] I emphasize that there is a difference between retired and active military officers. Even so, the purpose of the table is merely to indicate the military’s enduring presence in Thailand’s top political office.

[8] In early May 2014, I had counted at least 12 announcements by Suthep of a “Final Battle,” but the number may have been greater.

[9] “Suthep Asks Top Brass To Shield Protesters,” Bangkok Post, 26 January 2014; See also “Protestors Call on Army to Stage ‘Peaceful Coup,’” The Nation, July 11, 2013.

[10] Voranai Vanijaka, “The Military Holds the Key to Suthep’s Victory, or Defeat,” Bangkok Post, 05 January 2014.

[11] Nauvarat Suksamran, “Suthep in talks with Prayuth ‘Since 2010,’” Bangkok Post, 23 June 2014. Prayuth vehemently denied that such correspondence occurred.

[12] Nicholas Farrelly, “Why Democracy Struggles: Thailand’s Elite Coup Culture,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 67(2013): 281-296.

[13] ACM Anan Klintha, interview by authors, Bangkok, 28 January 2014.


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