Finally Martial Law

Thai Army’s 19th Move

Farooque Chowdhury

Thailand's status quo- democracy required an army intervention. The mainstream's fight for democracy, political arrangement appropriate to its interests, legally brought the army at the center of Thai political stage.

It's the Thai army's 19th move as the country experienced at least 18 actual or attempted military putsches since the country crowned itself with a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

On May 20, 2014, a 3 a.m.-Thailand Time announcement on army-run TV Channel 5 declared martial law. Soldiers in machine gun mounted jeeps made their presence felt on the streets.

The government, as news reports claimed, had not been consulted before the military made its move, which has given the army control over security. The government is at the helm of other jobs.

Thailand's constitution has not been dissolved by the ML promulgation. A caretaker, government was there immediately after the military move. The lower house of parliament was dissolved a few months ago. Senate, the upper house, is active in resolving political standoff.

So, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief, assured: "This is not a coup".

In real term, a "judicial coup" ousting prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra preceded the military move.
These make it difficult for many to depict the army move as coup or putsch.

A century-old law is the basis of promulgation of martial law. The martial law act of 1914 effectively gives the army chief control of the kingdom without the assent of the prime minister, who is elected within the existing political arrangement.

The ML "relieves" the government from the responsibility of enforcing law. The army, it was claimed, has the authority to summon officials and individuals for investigation.

Because of the law, the military move enables one to easily claim: The imposition of martial law is legal. A putsch is an illegal move.

Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, the acting prime minister, said in a statement: "This action of the Royal Thai Army must be under the principles of constitution and democracy with the King as head of state."

The statement puts responsibility of ML promulgation on some more heads.

Niwattumrong, it was reported, called an urgent meeting of the cabinet in an undisclosed location to discuss the ML.

A reality emerges with the century-old law, the army authority and the reported convening of the cabinet meeting in an undisclosed location: A simultaneous existence of two legal entities, where one is going to dominate the other as the duality can't prevail in statecraft if the state likes to avoid a stalemate

The political struggle by the Royalists and elites, the Yellow Shirts, to securely dominate the rural poor majority, the Red Shirts, has charged up the situation for a long time. Sometimes, months were tumultuous; sometimes, the Yellow Shirts were making it difficult for the government to function. A stalemate was gradually developing. There was fear of further deterioration of situation with violence.

This made the army step in, and a reality emerged:
To stabilize status quo, the Thai army is still the only institution that can take initiative to arbitrate and mediate between contending political demands made by competing interests within the status quo. The six months old latest political turbulence made by the Royalists, and the following armed move by the state confirms the fact.

Over years, at least over a century, the ruling elites have been capable of making the achievement: Building up army as their last resort.

So, the army is in charge of public security, which is actually capital's security, property's security, capital's unhindered operation for accumulation.

So, there are guns and soldiers. Capital needs force. Politics ultimately needs force. Political contradictions need force to get resolved. Arbitration and mediation, even among the same interests also need force, and arbitration loses acceptability when it turns into a party.

The on-going struggle between the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts; confirms this fact of force: economic force, social force, political force, armed force. In a society divided along property ownership, force plays the deciding role.

Creating the political turmoil was part of the Thai Royalists' eight-year long political fight, since 2006.

Toll of the pre-ML Royalist politics is not little: 28 lives lost and hundreds of citizens injured since November.
Political struggle led by the Royalists was also sending the economy into uncertainty.

A few mainstream scholars used to imagine that political turmoil can't rock the economy. But that imagination has already withered away.

The economy was contracting sharply since the political turmoil began. Foreign direct investment fell to $262.6 million in February, its lowest level in eight months and much lower than monthly levels over $1 billion for most of the past year. Consumer confidence went down to a 12-year low. Domestic demand that accounts for 80% of GDP has run off the tracks. Private consumption has contracted for five straight quarters.

Japan, Thailand's biggest investor, Australia, an actor willing to play important role in the region, and Indonesia and the Philippines expressed "grave concerns" or hope of a peaceful democratic resolution of the problem, etc. after the imposition of ML.

The US, Thailand's most important strategic partner, turned "very concerned about the deepening political crisis in Thailand". Its foreign ministry spokesperson expressed the expectation that the army shall "honor its commitment to make this a temporary action" and shall "not undermine democratic institutions".

They all have stakes in Thailand. A military takeover will not ultimately secure those stakes if the society foments with anguish from below the surface.

But ML is not the answer to the political questions raised by the conflicting situation. With further political stalemate, the ML can develop into a formal takeover of government without popular mandate: a coup.

Problems appearing political are fundamentally economic—interests in economy, distribution of/control on resources. These problems can be solved only through political processes. But the Thai elites have already shown their limitation: resorting to army, a political institution with an apolitical appearance, as other political institutions have gone to a stalemate.

"The Royal Thai Army intends to bring back peace and order soon as possible", said the army chief.

Who shall doubt whose democratic intentions? And, intentions don't rule reality. It's reality that dictates intentions. Peaceful and orderly intentions fly away if combustible "chemicals" overwhelm a situation.

Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, both former prime ministers and rich, have mobilized popular aspiration. But, the Royalists don't intend to compromise their space. There, the opposite directions and interests in the strained Thai society, lie combustible "chemicals".

Already Jatuporn Prompan, the leader of the Red Shirts, has warned that the undemocratic removal of the caretaker government "will never solve the country's crisis and will plunge Thailand deeper into trouble".

The Red Shirt leader had no option other than accepting the imposition of ML. However, he said the Red Shirts "won't tolerate a coup or other non-constitutional means" to grab power.

Elections scheduled for July 20 seem unlikely to go forward. Parliament isn't functioning. The complexities demand a "fair play" as a dividing line is developing in the society.

The elite power can't wipe out the dividing line in the Thai socety. Rather, the dividing line will deepen with each political struggle whoever, the Royalists or the populists, initiate and carry it out.

The recent developments create a few questions related to "democracy export": What's the output of external "democracy assistance" in millions of dollars—tax payers' money from other countries handed over to organizations friendly to satus quo and to the world capital? Is the money capable of resolving the contradictions surfacing today? Is the "democracy-money" capable of keeping alive political process other than resorting to armed force? Political scientists working with the question of democracy, and tax payers providing the money will search the answers.

Vol. 46, No. 52, Jul 6 - 12, 2014