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Book review: Thai, Myanmar militaries bounded by politics, power, profit

Sense Of Entitlement Has Given Generals The Upper Hand

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Myanmar's junta chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, presides over an Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw on March 27. Like Thai leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who also came to power through a putsch, he comes from a martial culture that believes generals are the best guardians of the country’s national ideology.   © Reuters

Shortly after Myanmar's military staged a coup on Feb. 1, the self-annointed junta chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, sent a letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power in his own coup in 2014. Min Aung Hlaing saw in the irascible former Thai army commander a man he could emulate since Prayuth had become the region's standard-bearer for successfully running a military-dominated state and in the process transforming himself into the premier of an elected, pro-military government.

Both men come from martial cultures where the military is not subject to civilian control but rather where the armed forces feel entitled to be political overlords, in the belief that the generals are the best guardians of their country's national ideology.

The role of the military in the political life of Thailand and Myanmar has long attracted the interest of academics. Two new publications reveal that the subject remains a rich vein for more inquiry, while successfully providing fresh answers to why both countries are vulnerable to coups.

Puangthong Pawakapan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, argues in her book that coups are not the only yardstick of military dominance. She documents in "Infiltrating Society: The Thai Military's Internal Security Affairs" how the military has often engaged in thought and behavior control programs through its Internal Security Operations Command, a Cold War relic.

As the army's "political arm," ISOC has deployed a variety of tactics to spread its influence throughout Thai society, such as using Facebook to conduct cyberspying. Such efforts give a contemporary twist to a deep-rooted, anti-democratic military tradition. Through ISOC's eyes, a vibrant democratic culture is viewed as a security threat, although its tactics sometimes border on the comic. One Facebook account was set up after Prayuth's coup to recruit people to "report intelligence information to ISOC." The name of this account has a cartoonish quality: "007 Intelligence."

Other efforts are more serious in intent and quite brazen, with various segments of the population being openly recruited for ISOC fronts. Multiple mass organizations that spanned the urban and rural spectrum sprung up in the aftermath of the 2006 coup that brought down the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Their numbers grew following Prayuth's 2014 putsch, and sported names such as "Association of Business People for National Security"; "Thai Big Bikes Love the Nation ISOC Club"; "People's Participation Program"; and "Local Thinkers Love The Nation."

This politico-military dynamic reinforces the argument made by many seasoned observers of Thailand: that democracy remains largely cosmetic because of frequent military interference. Puangthong notes the backing the military has received from ultraroyalist and ultraconservative elites in fostering new types of mass organizations. They have done so because the elites in the semi-feudal kingdom realize that "electoral democracy has increasingly posed a challenge to the establishment's power and domination."

The strength of the book's argument lies not only in making this link but also locating it as an extension from the past when the enemy was not democracy but communism. It is instructive in helping to understand the Thai military mindset, since the generals used strategies that combined coercion and sociopolitical measures to defeat the Communist Party of Thailand in the early 1980s after viewing the two-decade-long insurgency in the rural heartlands as the country's gravest security threat.

The Communist Suppression Operations Command, the forerunner to ISOC, was established in the 1960s to combat this threat. One of its favored counter-insurgency strategies was creating state-controlled mass organizations to wean local communities away from the CPT. Out of these social control battle plans emerged village development projects and vocational training programs, along with "royalist-nationalist indoctrination, propaganda, paramilitary forces, intelligence gathering and surveillance."

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Top: Prayuth Chan-ocha, then-chief of the Royal Thai Army, addresses reporters in Bangkok in May 2014, days after leading a coup that saw him take power. Bottom: Soldiers stand guard at the criminal court in front of a portrait of Thailand's then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok days after the military seized power.   © Reuters

Puangthong questions the merits of this political and socioeconomic offensive against the CPT since the legacy of the military's campaign continued after the CPT's defeat. Those who long for a vibrant Thai democracy will easily identify with her argument since the generals felt they had the license to intervene in nonmilitary areas to sustain their power. The price has been emasculation of Thai democracy.

Puangthong believes that change will require a broader, pro-democratic constituency to press for reforming Thailand's political order. Her book achieves what no recent book about the Thai military has accomplished: exposing the entrenched presence of ISOC as a bulwark of military domination.

"Praetorians, Profiteers or Professionals? -- Studies on the Militaries of Myanmar and Thailand," a collection of essays by various authors, sheds further light on the role of the armed forces outside the traditional limits of defense.

The chapter by Paul Chambers, an academic expert on the Thai military, states that two conditions have enabled the generals to dominate Thailand. The first is the military's close association with the monarchy, which the generals have pledged to defend. In return they have gained legitimacy for their political forays. The second is an ideology they have evolved over more than a century to "rationalize the legitimacy of interventionism to rescue, defend and develop the nation."

There are parallels with the notion of dwifungsi -- or "dual function" -- that the powerful Indonesian military once pursued, Chambers notes. This justified the expansion of the military from being defenders of the nation to becoming influential players in shaping the country's sociopolitical affairs. The generals in Thailand were not satisfied in being mere power brokers in a dysfunctional political system, but saw themselves as power wielders. Chambers refers to Thailand's two most recent coups, in 2006 and 2014. The generals wanted to demonstrate that "developmental militarism could trump the inefficiencies of democracy," he says. Other cases sustain his main thesis that the military's political ambitions are more in line with acting as praetorians rather than professional soldiers.

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In drawing attention to the military's business empire that has thrived for decades, Kanda Naknoi argues that this is not all that it was seeking. The military's commercial gains have increased after each of Thailand's coups, which have averaged one every four years since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. This is due to its "success in shaping regulations to favor its own businesses," which range from military-owned banks and broadcast radio and television stations to interests in construction, hotels and restaurants. For example, the Royal Thai Army is the country's biggest landowner, with property holdings 110 times greater than the real estate owned by the monarchy. The image of generals as exploitative landlords is striking.

But the Thai military's economic stakes pale in comparison to those of the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar's military. The extent of its financial holdings has become the focus of international interest in the wake of Min Aung Hlaing's coup. Two conglomerates that symbolize the Tatmadaw's dominance over the economy are Myanma Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. These secretive Tatmadaw conglomerates enjoy a monopoly or substantial stakes in ventures that vary from banking, beer and insurance to energy, wood industries and the mining of copper, gems and jade. They reflect the Myanmar military's mindset of wanting to be directly involved in "development activity, nation-building and state-building," writes Maung Aung Myo, an international relations scholar. The military's grip on the national economy is even viewed as "natural and legitimate."

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Soldiers from the 77th Light Infantry Division walk along a street during a protest against the military coup in Yangon on Feb. 28.   © Reuters

Maung Aung Myo notes that "the income of [the] UMEHL is mostly for the welfare of troops, military units, and veterans, [while] little is known about the use to which the revenues of the MEC are put." He also provides some fresh assessments about the significance of these twin military enterprises to measure Min Aung Hlaing's pledge to reform and modernize the Tatmadaw in the years before the coup. While he concedes that some change did occur, he forecasts a more worrying scenario if the Tatmadaw's commercial activities, which the soldiers depend on for income and welfare, are terminated. "Many soldiers could end up involved in criminal activities because of the need to cope with rising living costs," he explains. In that light, the coup raises a troubling question: Is the brutality unleashed by the troops an excuse to stall reform in order to sustain their military cash cows?

The chapter by Nay Yan Oo, a Myanmar-based political analyst, examines the extent of the Tatmadaw's reform agenda. He uses as his starting point the tentative steps the country took toward becoming a quasi-democracy in 2011 after nearly 50 years of military rule. The turning point was the end of direct military rule over the country, although the shifting political order still had a military imprint following the widely questioned 2010 general elections that ensured the victory of a pro-army government, headed by an ex-general as the new president.

This transition was marked by the arrival of a new generation of military leaders, headed by Min Aung Hlaing, with a blueprint to reform the military from being one geared to fighting multiple ethnic insurgencies to a "standard army." This march to modernization led to an upgrade of military hardware and "developing the capacity of military personnel."

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Anti-coup protesters flee from military troops during a demonstration in Yangon on March 31.    © AP

Although Nay Yan Oo wrote his chapter before the latest coup, he treats the claims of a "New Tatmadaw" with some skepticism. "One may argue that the Tatmadaw has become a new army because of the positive changes that it has carried out in recent years ... (but) the military still has old characteristics," he writes. He notes Min Aung Hlaing's delay in giving up the Tatmadaw's self-declared political and historical mission for the country, "playing an important role in politics even after handing power to the civilian government." He also highlights the ruthlessness of military atrocities against the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority.

On the other hand, the author gives the generals some benefit of doubt, citing reasons to feel hope that Myanmar's military leaders were aware of the country's march "toward a democratic system," and that the "old characteristics" might delay progress but not "nullify" it. Yet, the February coup put paid to such assessments. It only affirms an already prevailing truism: the dangers of trying to read the minds of Tatamadaw leaders, which many scholars have done with only limited success.

Both books reinforce the view that the militaries of Thailand and Myanmar are different from their Southeast Asian peers, where civilian leaders, political party bosses or monarchs keep their respective armies in check. And it appears unlikely that either country will soon see the last of politically ambitious generals. Their attempts to keep a grip on power should keep Thai and Myanmar specialists on their toes.