Military prefers to broker power rather than seize it

When Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban met on Sunday for half an hour, the dialogue was brokered by the military. Present at the table were Thailand's army, navy and air force chiefs.

Significantly, no top police brass were invited. The police may be a powerful force and aligned with Ms Yingluck, but the armed forces have the real power to decide if a government stays or goes. Thailand's military has led 19 coups or attempted coups since 1932, the year the country adopted democracy.

Sunday's message was clear - the military remains possibly the most significant power broker in Thailand, but it would rather avoid a situation in which it is forced to seize power again.

Colonel Artcha Boongrapu, a military-civil relations specialist at the armed forces' Supreme Command, told The Straits Times in an interview: "The army doesn't want to keep going back to square one. Everyone wants to move the country forward. The army is best as a defensive force; they are not supposed to run the economy, or be politicians."

The last coup in 2006 led to an inept one-year administration, spawned the massive pro-Thaksin Shinawatra, anti-coup "red shirt" movement, and drew international disapproval.

The army also led the crackdown on the red shirts in 2010, when almost 100 died in clashes in Bangkok between troops and civilians. That bloody summer showed that if the army were to seize power again, many would resist. Not a shot was fired in the 2006 coup; the next one might be different.

On Tuesday, tension in Bangkok abated when protesters were allowed to occupy the Government House and police headquarters in a temporary, face-saving truce just ahead of the King's birthday.

In the afternoon, the army's public relations unit, in a series of Twitter tweets, said the army was always careful not to get involved in politics, because solving political issues with unconstitutional means might create rifts among Thais and lead to violence, damaging the country.

Dr Surin Pitsuwan, a Democrat Party stalwart, said: "The military has restrained itself most effectively. In the past, they would have rolled out the tanks already to restore law and order. But they know this time, that in the end, it is more complicated than letting the political process take its course."

He added: "If the army were to seize power again, it would be difficult to sustain what it has started. The most important thing is to maintain the constitutional process and let civilians decide on the next move."

Thai scholars have often observed that military intervention is considered almost normal in Thailand, where democracy has a sporadic record. In the latest issue of the Australian Journal of International Affairs, academic Nicholas Farrelly calls this "Thailand's elite coup culture".

Political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, a specialist in national security issues, also warns that the military's reluctance to seize power should not be overstated.

"They did not say the Yingluck Shinawatra government is legitimate," he pointed out. "They said they are on the side of Thailand.

"The role of the armed forces in Thai politics is still significant and active, but now not in an open way. In this latest conflict, the military has been active quietly, monitoring developments, mobilising in order to be ready - and in the end, as a broker."

Sunday's meeting was held at the headquarters of the elite King's Bodyguard.

An army officer's oath of loyalty is to the King. Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda, in a speech in 2006, famously likened the army to a racehorse and the government to a jockey. Jockeys come and go, but the owner of the racehorse is the King, he said.

Professor Panitan said: "In the end, if this role of broker is not successful, they still have the option of force to intervene if any group disrupts the stability of the country or the continuity of the institution - the monarchy - that they protect. But they also know that could be destructive to the army's image."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.