Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Security, Development and Political Participation in Thailand: Alternative Currencies of Legitimacy

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Security, Development and Political Participation in Thailand: Alternative Currencies of Legitimacy

Article excerpt


In October 1997, faced with a huge economic crisis that had brought Thailand to its knees, elected premier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh sought a meeting with military chiefs in an apparent bid to stage a coup against himself. Chavalit -- himself a former army commander -- appears to have hoped that the military would support him in declaring a state of emergency. (1) Instead, the military chiefs told him to forget it. Chavalit was ousted by parliamentary means shortly afterwards, and replaced as prime minister by Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai. A few years earlier, no military commander could have resisted the opportunity to impose a security clampdown on behalf of an ex-military prime minister. This remarkable episode testified to the transformations which Thai politics had undergone during the 1990s: between the coup of 1991 and the non-coup of 1997, the security "card" had been significantly devalued.

This article explores the contrasting discourses of security, development, and political participation in Thailand. These three terms will be viewed essentially as constructions by the Thai elite, reflecting the experiences of a state that enjoyed an important strategic position during the Cold War, especially in the context of Vietnam. Elites have successfully traded in these three different "currencies" in order to legitimate their rule and preserve their power. The most successful elements of the Thai elite are those who have most successfully traded the appropriate currencies at key political junctures. By examining the transformations and adaptations of the three forms of power during the recent decades, the dynamics of social and political change in Thailand are assessed and reviewed.


Defining security in the Thai context is highly contentious. Despite the powerful role played by the military in the Thai political order since 1932, security (as conventionally understood) has never been the central task of the military in Thailand. The military is first and foremost an armed bureaucracy, which does not fight wars. Unlike other powerful militaries in the region (such as those of Myanmar, Indonesia, or South Korea), it has not fought an independence struggle or defended national sovereignty. As one commentator wrote in 1982: "The army showed that it remains politicized, factionalized, and is of doubtful value as a military force." (2) Ben Anderson memorably described the Thai military as "a cluster of self-absorbed, status conscious, privileged bureaucratic factions". (3) The Thai military has often appeared to shun potentially dangerous situations. Instead, military officers have preferred to devote their energies to the more interesting and satisfying professions of business and politics. T heir core businesses have been smuggling, logging, and profiting from the country's natural resources. In politics, they have consistently claimed for themselves high political office (many of Thailand's prime ministers have had a military background), and a share in the running of the country. The pursuit of security, as understood from the perspective of the Thai military, has sometimes amounted to finding strategies to avoid having to fight anyone.

There is no doubt that there were some areas of considerable professionalism within the Thai military during the Indochina conflict. This was especially the case in technical fields such as artillery, where Thai forces benefited from U.S. technology and training. By the 1980s, the Thai military had developed much more effective methods of combating insurgencies than previously. Yet, the most successful anticommunist strategy of the Thai military was its amnesty policy for communist insurgents, which yielded dramatic results in the early 1980s. Rather than fight communism in the jungles, the military decided to wait for the radicals to emerge from the jungle of their own accord. …

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