Thailand’s armed forces: Overemphasizing the loyalty
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Thailand’s armed forces: Overemphasizing the loyalty

By Saksith Saiyasombut

When General Prayuth Chan-ocha took over as commander-in-chief of Thailand’s armed forces last year, he made in no uncertain terms right off the bat what his top priorities are: protecting the royal institution and going after everything and everyone that is deemed a threat to it. Since then, he apparently still is not tired to emphasize this.

On Tuesday, the army staged a mock exercise with about 1,100 soldiers, various types of weapons, vehicles and helicopters amid heavy rain in Bangkok, under the theme of protecting the monarchy and apparently also to show that the armed forces are unified, despite reports of possible dissent in the ranks.

“All from the 1st Infantry Regiment are the King’s soldiers. Hence, you must be ready to act on commands of your superiors,” Maj Gen Kampanat told the gathering of infantrymen.

He told them to have faith in their commanders and to strictly obey their orders, and insisted that all soldiers should share the army chief’s stance.

Show of strength to protect monarchy“, Bangkok Post, April 20, 2011

This show of force comes after Prayuth himself has lodged a lese majeste-complaint against Jatuporn Prompan, United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) co-leader and Puea Thai Party MP, and several other red shirt supporters for allegedly making inappropriate comments against the monarchy during a rally on April 10, 2011 marking the anniversary of the bloody clashes. (Sidenote: the accused are suing back)

This was just the last one in a series of actions Prayuth has taken in recent weeks all with the emphasis to protect the monarchy and telling others not to misuse the royal institution for their own gain. Pravit Rojanaphruk has listed some of these in a recent story in The Nation:

Here are just some of the hats that Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has put on over the past few weeks: (…)

– That of a not-so-convincing denier of coup rumours: Prayuth can never be convincing on this subject because of the role he played in the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra. How can he, who was involved in a coup then be denying the threat now?

– That of an adviser to all Thai voters: “Vote to protect monarchy” was the instruction from Prayuth that this newspaper carried on its front page last week. He was also quoted as saying that a high turnout was the key to safeguarding the monarchy and democracy. But what if the majority of Thai voters vote for the “wrong” party? Will there be another military coup? He also believes that all Thais know who to blame for the ongoing political crisis. “Everyone knows the culprits behind the lost lives and the injuries incurred [last April and May],” he was quoted as saying. Surely, he can’t be serious.

– That of chief censor and promoter of the lese majeste law: Prayuth has ordered the Information and Communication Technology Ministry to block more websites and has told his soldiers to file lese majeste charges against red-shirt leaders for what they allegedly said during the April 10 rally. This was even before the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and police could make a move.

These are just some of the many hats that Prayuth has enjoyed wearing recently, though one can’t help but wonder if they really fit an Army chief.

An army chief who dons too many hats“, by Pravit Rojanaphruk, The Nation, April 20, 2011 (hyperlinks inserted by me)

Prayuth repeatedly claims that the monarchy is above politics and thus should not be dragged into political activities. The problem is though, as Voranai Vanijaka lamented in a Bangkok Post op-ed, that the blatant overemphasizing of the loyalty to the royal institution and the act of accusing others the lack thereof is used solely for political gain and thus exactly affects the monarchy in a way that is explicitly (at least officially) not supposed to be, as Pavin Chachavalpongpun notes:

The military may be exploiting its role as protector of the monarchy to legitimize its own involvement in politics, but in the process it is also further politicizing the institution. (…)

The lese-majeste law is a devastatingly effective political weapon. But the more politicians abuse it, the more they damage the monarchy. In the worst-case scenario, it could become a self-fulfilling accusation. By backing the red shirts into a corner where their criticisms of the elites are accused of being anti-monarchy, the government could split society on the role of the monarchy.

Thailand’s Military on the Offensive“, by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2011

This whole trend has already backfired on the army, which also is re-politicized ever since the 2006 coup, and continues to do since Prayuth began as commander-in-chief, much to his disadvantage:

First things first. Gen Prayuth probably has come out to speak on the same issue once too often, so nobody seems to care about his message any longer. (…)

That is because the army chief has already dragged the army into politics by showing support for some political parties and thus turning himself into an enemy of the opposition. The move has made the army vulnerable to attacks from politicians annoyed with Gen Prayuth.

Tussle of the two Tu’s – one red and the other green“, Bangkok Post, April 21, 2011

Now, with all political parties stopping to mention the monarchy in their activities, either voluntarily (like the UDD did, despite the fight against the indiscriminate use of the lese-majeste-law against them being one of their main points) or involuntarily (with the election commission essentially issuing a gag order to all political parties, much to the dismay of e.g. Bhum Jai Thai, who recently handed out millions of royal portraits to, again, emphasizing their loyalty), it leaves the army to follow suit and tone down, if it does not want to be at the receiving end of it’s own heavy campaigning.

P.S.: This whole overemphasizing-thingy sometimes lead to unusual remarks such as by a regional commander, who referred to himself as a “slave to the King and the country” (original sentence: “ในฐานะที่เป็นผู้บังคับบัญชาทหารในพื้นที่ภาค 2  ที่เป็นกำลังสำคัญในการปกป้องประเทศชาติ  เป็นข้าทาสของในหลวง และแผนดินไทย“, source: Daily News) – I guess ‘servant’ wasn’t enough for him.

h/t to Andrew Spooner for links and tips

Saksith Saiyasombut is Thai blogger and journalist still based in Hamburg, Germany. He can also be followed on Twitter @Saksith.