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Martial Law, Thai-Style: Imposing Order Without Bloodshed

June 24, 2014
via Dario Pignatelli

via Dario Pignatelli

It’s been a month since General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced the Thai military was taking matters in its own hands by imposing martial law.

On May 20, Thailand’s powerful armed forces intervened to diffuse the ongoing conflict between the Red Shirts and the pro-royalty People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

The de facto coup was carried out with practiced ease by the Royal Thai Army. Checkpoints were established around Bangkok and TV stations secured to prevent inflammatory broadcasts. These actions weren’t surprising. Thailand has come under military rule on 25 different occasions in the last hundred years.

The difference is the Thai military doesn’t seize power for its own selfish reasons. It actually seeks to preserve the cohesion of the Thai state, a time-tested “reset” button when disorder threatens to engulf the status quo.

This is why even when restrictions on public gatherings and other forms of dissent are strictly prohibited, Thailand’s coup leaders aren’t cracking down on citizens and its perceived enemies.

Barring a sudden collapse of law and order, Thailand could transition back to normal by year’s end.

“Return to normal quickly”

When Thailand does revert to business as usual–with its strong manufacturing sector and Southeast Asia’s second largest economy–the position of its military won’t diminish.

The 306,000-strong Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTAF) is among the largest in the region and maintains a diverse arsenal sourced from longtime ally the US, Israel, China, the EU, and Ukraine.

Thailand has no foreign ambitions, however, and the RTAF is focused internally. Even when its navy acquired an aircraft carrier in the 1990s, the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, the steep costs of maintaining the vessel meant it was hardly used.

Based on data gathered by SIPRI, the Thai government’s defense budget is between $3.5 to 4 billion.This modest amount is enough for a piecemeal modernization program that includes 12 Saab Jaas Gripen multirole fighters and large numbers of Ukrainian tanks and APCs. Rather than shop for pricey weapon systems abroad, Thailand’s cordial relations with China led to multimillion dollar bargains for warships, tanks, APCs, and missile technology.

But Thailand is no different from other Southeast Asian countries when it buys new weapons. These purchases are often made to offset a larger inventory of either dated or obsolete equipment–and the RTAF possess a lot of the latter. Be it aging Vietnam War-era surplus or Chinese anti-aircraft guns.

What is often overlooked about the Thai military institution is, like its neighbors Vietnam and Myanmar, there exists a very old martial record chronicling how soldiers have always protected Thai nationhood for centuries.

This heritage no doubt influences how Thailand’s generals view themselves and more importantly, how the country’s elite perceives the armed forces’ value.