BANGKOK (Reuters) - In July 2006, an 85-year-old Thai general dressed up in full military regalia to address a bunch of graduating young officers. It was no ordinary passing out parade.
The general was Prem Tinsulanonda, chief adviser to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and his message was clear and aimed straight at elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawtra.
“Soldiers are like horses and governments are jockeys but not owners. You belong to the nation and His Majesty the King,” Prem, also a former army chief and prime minister, said.
His comments were prophetic — two months later, the army removed Thaksin in the 18th coup in 74 years of on-off democracy.
They also show how this week army chief Anupong Paochinda could refuse orders from Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to evict, by force if necessary, the thousands of protesters who have been occupying his official compound calling for his head.
Put simply, Thailand’s army has never taken orders from the government.
“The military is not answerable to the executive,” historian and Thaksin biographer Chris Baker said. “The elected government comes in every now and then, and they can ride on the horse for a bit but they don’t actually own it or control it.”
Within hours of Samak declaring emergency rule on Tuesday to get the army to remove the protesters from Government House, Anupong made it clear he would deploy only unarmed troops and only to prevent pro- and anti-government groups clashing.
“If we thought we could use police and soldiers to get them out of with a peaceful conclusion, we would do it. But we think that that would create problems,” he said.
In its most glaring form, the military’s disdain for elected government — which, ironically, started with the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932 — is shown in the frequency with which it has launched a coup: on average, once every four years.
But its control in a country where patronage is still the prevailing social force stretches way beyond merely the periodic seizure of political power.
As well as more than 300,000 men, it has a widespread network of informants, a legacy of anti-communist activities during the Cold War, and is a major conduit for humanitarian projects evolving from the revered royal family.
The army owns TV and radio stations, was able to corner up to 20 percent of the national budget, and has as many as 1,000 generals on its staff, even though most of them are more familiar with golf, rather than rifle, ranges.
Besides minor operations in Vietnam, and the occasional border skirmish with Myanmar, it has fought only one proper war — a three month affair against neighboring Laos in 1987-88. Japanese occupation in the Second World War was unopposed.
Attempts to cut the armed forces down to size have invariably gone nowhere.
Only after 1992, when troops opened fire on huge democracy demonstrations, killing dozens, was its public standing so low the government could even contemplate military reform.
The financial crisis of 1997 led to further squeezing of the military share of the budget, which dropped to as little as six percent under Thaksin, whose career started with the police — the army’s bitter internal rivals.
After the putsch against Thaksin, the army-appointed government increased defence spending by 66 percent to $4.5 billion for 2007-08, leading many to question its motives in ousting the prime minister on the pretext of “rampant corruption”.
Thaksin even claimed the army tried to assassinate him, sacking General Pallop Pinmanee as deputy director of the shadowy Internal Security Operations Command after a junior officer was found near his home in a car packed with explosives.
Pallop contemptuously dismissed any plot, saying: “If I had wanted to kill him, the prime minister would not have escaped.”
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan