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The best role the army can play is mediator
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    With reports that anti-government protests under the leadership of Suthep Thaugsuban and the People's Democratic Reform Committee are poised to intensify, the role of the Thai military comes into question.


    So far, the army has gone out of its way to stay in the barracks. But as the gloves come off between Mr Suthep's protest movement and government forces, the army will be under pressure to maintain a semblance of law and order.

    If it enters the fray in earnest, the army is unlikely to take sides explicitly this time, unlike in 2006 when it staged a coup, in 2008 when it publicly called on the elected government to resign, and in 2009-10 when it twice suppressed red-shirt demonstrators aligned to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

    Yet whatever role the army assumes in the current crisis, it is unlikely to be overtly on the side of the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr Thaksin's sister. As Mr Suthep's movement is fundamentally about preserving and promoting royal prerogatives, the army is unlikely to oppose this stance, keeping the government on the back foot in its attempt to stay in office.

    When the military's role in Thai politics is discussed, people effectively refer to the army, rather than all three armed forces. The navy used to have a powerful political role, but had its wings clipped in 1951 after a navy-sponsored coup failed. The air force has never really had a decisive political role. It showed up and lent support to army-led initiatives. It was at its most assertive in the February 1991 coup, when its commandos seized then-prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan and his entourage on board a plane. When it comes to the military's role in Thai politics, the army calls the shots.

    The police force has played a significant role in the past, such as in the February 1991 putsch when a police factional feud partly led to Chatichai's overthrow. Since the premiership years of Thaksin, a former police officer, the role of the police has been elevated, and is now, under Ms Yingluck's watch, at its most prominently political position yet.

    At the same time, army-led putsches in Thailand have become less frequent. Since 1932 when constitutionalism came into use, Thailand has averaged about 4.7 years per coup, but this number is front-loaded.

    Apart from October 1976, February 1991 and September 2006 were the only other successful coups in the modern period, each taking place 15 years apart. A failed coup in April 1981 led to an unsuccessful sequel in September 1985. Overall, coups in Thailand are no longer a regular occurrence. Yet they can never be ruled out in a body politic where democratic institutions are congenitally weak and consistently constrained and undermined by putsches.

    The "People's Committe" now appears intent to go all the way in its vow to extirpate the "Thaksin regime" by occupying more government agencies, hollowing out Ms Yingluck's authority and effectiveness, and then taking the reins of government to set up a "people's assembly" to enact its own sweeping reforms. Consequently, a battle of grinding attrition between the two sides could be just around the corner. So far Ms Yingluck has matched Mr Suthep's provocation with restraint, but this is untenable. The government will soon be forced to respond as the People's Committee pressures and provocations.

    Thus the army will be increasingly dragged into the conflict. It has the command structure, organisational wherewithal, and equipment and personnel to break the deadlock. But it will be reluctant to get involved for a number of reasons.

    First, the army would have a difficult time forming an acceptable interim government if it seizes power. Its lessons from September 2006 are still fresh. By all accounts, the interim government at that time failed to impress. Its policy disarray has left a bad taste for coup-makers. Repeating the 1991-92 period of a military-appointed coup government is not workable under the prevailing environment of crisis, conflict and the complexity of the Thai economy and Thailand's relations with the international community.

    Second, the army would have to face red-shirt protests. Such a confrontation would not be new, but this time, unlike in 2009-10, the army may be forced to suppress more harshly _ generating more fatalities. Its appetite for deadly clashes akin to those of the Middle East is very likely limited.

    Third, international reactions would be strong, unlike during the Cold War when Thai coups were acquiesced to, even supported, by major powers abroad. The 1991 coup earned limited criticism, the 2006 putsch much more. But a coup in 2013 and beyond cannot expect to be received favourably by allied countries.

    The last coup government in 2006-7 did not have much international credibility; its leaders were unable to meet foreign counterparts at high levels. Apart from the diplomatic opprobrium, foreign investors and tourists will have second thoughts about Thailand. The Thai economy may just be too open and integrated with the outside world, and its critical mass may too immense, for it to be turned inwards by a coup.

    Fourth, whatever the source of power and authority was that led the army to be confident enough to stage the coup in 2006, and assert itself in 2008 and 2009-10, appears not to be as committed and reliable.

    The flip side of the army's decline in coup-confidence is Ms Yingluck's generosity with the armed forces' budget, weapons procurement and internal promotions. Also the defence minister, Ms Yingluck has befriended the high command and provided organisational autonomy to the generals.

    Finally, the generals will want to look after themselves. A wayward intervention that goes awry could spell limitless liabilities for those in command. Criminal charges and jail terms could await them after worst-case scenarios _ carnage at the hands of security forces. When they retire at 60, chiefs of the armed forces like Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha will still have some two decades to live. And they will presumably want to live in Thailand, which could be difficult with too much blood on their hands.

    The army is thus caught between a rock and a hard place because of the heightened brinkmanship and confrontation between Mr Suthep's People's Committee and the Yingluck government. In 2007-08, the army was assisted by the judiciary in setting political direction and keeping Thaksin's forces at bay. But this time it has no outside help as Mr Suthep's People's Committee takes matters into its own hands and stages its own coup, save the independent agencies such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission which may still come against the Yingluck cabinet with fraud charges.

    Not even His Majesty the King's birthday celebrations and the much anticipated royal speech can put a stop to what appears now to be unavoidable turmoil and mayhem. The generals must think long and hard about their intervention. The best role they can play is as the mediator between the two sides. But the generals will have to twist arms and be more forceful in getting both sides to make concessions and return the mandate to the electorate with agreeable terms and initiatives during the interim. No one can mediate the current conflict better than the Thai army.


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