Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thai crisis highlights Asia's 'king-maker' armies - Army's Taste of power

By Martin Abbugao

(Kuwait Times) - The Thai military's role as chief enforcer in quelling anti-government protests underscores the role of army generals as kingmakers or dictators in Southeast Asia, analysts said. In countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar, many civilian rulers have learned the bitter lesson that the allegiance of the armed forces can mean the difference between their survival or downfall.

Analysts said that weak civilian institutions and the military's status as frequently the most organized and disciplined force in a country, often creates conditions ripe for army intervention. Political leaders also often try to court the favor of military officers to remain in power, they said. "As a matter of practical politics, if you are in power you have to have Ceasar's legions on your side, pointing their spears not at you but at the enemy," said Rex Robles, who runs a political risk consultancy i
n Manila.

Robles, one of the reform-minded junior officers who led a mutiny against former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, said corruption and bad government are also triggers for the military to act. The 1986 mutiny sparked a popular civilian uprising that ended Marcos' 20-year rule. "It's essentially bad governance," Robles told AFP. "Corruption results in the weakening of institutions like the judiciary.

John Harrison, a security specialist at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said people look to the military in times of crisis because they are organised, disciplined and armed. "In countries that are in the early stages of economic development the strongest institution is often the military," Harrison told AFP. "Because of this cohesion and access to resources, when the military views the civilian leadership as corrupt, ineffective and not operating in the national interest they often feel
the need to intervene to restore order.

Modern Southeast Asian history bears out this analysis. Thailand has had 18 coups since 1932 when it became a constitutional monarchy, and since then the military has never been fully pushed to the background. In its latest political role, the army ousted elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and stayed in charge for a year until elections in December 2007.

It is now enforcing a state of emergency imposed by current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and on Tuesday successfully cleared protesters from their last encampment at Abhisit's offices. In the Philippines, despite a vow to "go back to barracks," military officers mounted several coup attempts against Marcos' successor, Corazon Aquino. She survived the attempts, thanks to the loyalty of key military commanders who exerted considerable influence during her administration.

Fidel Ramos, the West Point-trained cigar-chomping former general who stood by Aquino, was later democratically elected president. Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada was ousted halfway into his six-year term in 2001 after the military withdrew its support following allegations of corruption and incompetence. The military also remains a formidable political force in Indonesia.

Former general Suharto came to power in 1965 following a coup against nationalist leader Sukarno and ruled with an iron fist until he was deposed in 1998. Current leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a former army general who was democratically elected. Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The incumbent junta came to power in 1988 after crushing pro-democracy demonstrations.

Elections were held in 1990 but the junta refused to honor the results won by the political party of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 13 of the last 19 years under house arrest. Analysts said it would be difficult to keep the region's army in their bunkers. "It's hard because they have already tasted power," said Robles, referring to former military officers appointed to high civilian posts as a reward for their loyalty. - AFP

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