Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Constitutional Change and Security Forces in Southeast Asia: Lessons from Thailand and Myanmar

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Constitutional Change and Security Forces in Southeast Asia: Lessons from Thailand and Myanmar

Article excerpt

Taming security forces through constitutional reform has been a major challenge for young democracies in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, security sector reform has been successful, and some studies cite that country as a basis on which to predict a bright future for the region. (1) In the Philippines, however, governments seeking to establish or consolidate civilian control have been faced with military mutinies or the threat of coups. On other occasions (e.g. the two countries under examination in this article), the successful enshrinement of laws regulating security forces have accompanied compromises which provide militaries/police with considerable latitude in areas of decision-making. Ultimately, the constitutional incorporation of security forces into political life--as controlled by "true" civilians--is no easy task. This article examines two case studies of "defective" democracies (2)--Thailand and Myanmar --where security forces have moved towards becoming more integrated under the constitutions of civilian-led regimes. Yet such moves have not led to civilianization but have instead mostly camouflaged the continuing influence of the armed forces, thereby insulating security forces from civilian monitoring. As such, this study asks four questions with regard to the two cases. First, how did the institutionalization of security services under civilian-led constitutions occur historically? Second, how did these experiences vary? Third, to what extent do security forces in different countries today possess differing degrees of enshrined powers? And fourth, based upon these experiences, how might the constitutionalization of "true" civilian control eventually be sustained? Using historical institutionalism, this study argues that constitutional change acceded to by security forces more often than not results from sequences of transformative bargains--informal negotiations and concessions --between civilians and security officials. However, the initial sequence can later transition towards more or less security service interventionism depending upon three variables: the heritage of authoritarianism as perceived by security officials as well as civilians; the relative unity of civilians as opposed to that of security services; and external or internal threat environments.

Historical Institutionalism and Security Forces

An abundance of literature exists on the distribution of decision-making power between civilians and security officials, particularly regarding civil-military relations. (3) Though traditionally political scientists examined only soldiers, (4) this focus has increasingly been viewed as myopic, given the existence of a plethora of other armed state organizations such as the police, paramilitaries and related entities. (5) This study applies the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's definition of the security sector as "core security actors: armed forces; police service; gendarmeries; paramilitary forces; presidential guards; intelligence and security services (both military and civilian); coast guards; border guards; customs authorities; and reserve or local security units (civil defence forces, national guards, militias)." (6) The study defines the relations between civilians (7) and security forces as those interactions that in some way relate to the power to make political decisions. (8) R.H. Kohn described civilian control as a situation where "civilians make all the rules and can change them at any time". (9) As Timothy Edmunds has argued, in young democracies given that security forces possess the legal monopoly of violence, "they may be tempted to act in a partisan or praetorian manner in relation to domestic politics.... [Alternatively,] they may be the subject of attempts by partisan factions within the civilian sector to ... disrupt democratic processes. Thus, effective and democratic civilian control of the security sector is a key component of any process of democratization. …

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