Yawning Bread. February 2007

Après nous, les militaires




In September 2006, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was reported to have said, "Without the elected president and if there is a freak result, within two or three years, the army would have to come in and stop it." [1]. I believe he meant to underline his low opinion of Singapore's opposition parties: even if they won a general election, they would surely govern so badly that the military would take over.  

Why does "opposition party" necessarily equate with poor governance? In any case, why is a military coup posited as some kind of salvation in the event that the government changes hands?

The last few months, Singaporeans have had an intensive course in the politics of military government, and generally, I think, we've not been impressed. I'm referring, of course, to Thailand.

No doubt, no two military regimes are the same, and conditions that lead to their taking power can be vastly different from one case to another. Nonetheless, there are certain features we can observe in Thailand today that hold true of military regimes generally.

The first is that a new military junta devotes much of its attention, not so much to governing, but to warding off real or perceived counter-attacks. Four months after the Thai coup, martial law has still not been lifted in many of the country's provinces. Community radio stations have been closed, and orders issued to national newspapers and television stations to black out news about former premier Thaksin. Meanwhile furious efforts are made to find proof of the previous regime's corruption in order to justify its power-grab, though until now, no smoking gun has emerged.

In the absence of incontrovertible proof of Thaksin's malfeasance, great theatre is mounted against Singapore's involvement in his business empire. Ridiculous though it may be -- anyone who knows anything about telecommunications has said so -- General Sonthi claimed that the Singapore government was spying on the domestic phone calls placed through Advanced Info Service, the mobile phone company owned by Singapore-controlled Shin Corp.

Meanwhile, its puppet civilian government under (former general) Surayud Chulanont stumbles from one mess to another. The economic growth forecast for Thailand this year was recently revised downwards from a range of 4.5 to 5.5 percent, to that of 4 to 5 percent. Some economists think even this may be optimistic. Bombs and grenades are going off in Bangkok itself, not just the southernmost provinces, and one month later, no one has any real clue who the perpetrators are.

In a way, one can understand why the military rulers place such priority in discrediting Thaksin, for right up to the coup, Thaksin's voter support remained solid. Notwithstanding allegations of fraud in the April 2006 elections (the last one before the coup) political observers were agreed that his party, Thai Rak Thai, was genuinely popular in many provinces outside Bangkok. It was primarily the elite in the capital city that so disliked him to the point that they paralysed the metropolis for days at a stretch.

Immediately on taking over in September 2006, the generals promised that democracy would be restored, though under a revised constitution, by September 2007, i.e. after 12 months. In the old days, generals never made such promises -- they took power to stay in power. But in today's world, especially in the case of a country that depends on exports and tourism, it is necessary to keep within certain norms of democratic governance, in order to be accepted into the world community. 12 months is a very short period of time to change people's opinion of Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai, but if the generals don't succeed in that, Thaksin or some proxy of his could come back into power, a prospect that starkly increases the chances of the generals facing the firing squad.

Alternatively, the junta can use the 12 months to rewrite the constitution so drastically that the military will continue to hold either a veto or considerable influence indefinitely. Yet there are serious risks there. Firstly, the Thaksin supporters will not stand for that, but equally, the anti-Thaksin democratic forces will not be happy either. Such a figleaf-democracy won't augur well -- there will likely be continued contention for years to come.

Quick fix, long instability

The fundamental problem is that military rule, anywhere, is always illegitimate. Their seizure of power is always a case of sedition, which means that letting go of power always exposes putsch leaders to trial under the succeeding democratic government, if not the immediate one following, then another one somewhere down the road.

General Augusto Pinochet of Chile thought he had managed a gradual transition to democratic constitutional rule in return for immunity, but in his last days, he learnt to his great discomfort that a democratic government that relied on the people's mandate for its legitimacy did not have to honour such promises made to him. In fact, any new government, in order to preserve its own democratic legitimacy, may have to tear up that immunity once voters begin to think it ought to.

A military putsch is a short-term fix that tends to leave a country unstable for a much longer period of time, always presenting a problem of succession.


Some may argue that historically, it hasn't always been so, and thus my argument does not stand. Suharto gave Indonesia 32 years of (enforced) stability, and in South Korea, Park Chung Hee (coup 1961) and Chun Doo Hwan (coup 1979) both oversaw the initial period of the country's rapid economic growth [2]. However, as mentioned above, there has since developed a much higher consciousness of democratic rights in Asia and globally, and especially for economically open societies, the rigid authoritarianism that is necessary for military regimes to hold on to power is much harder for people to stomach than before.

Knowing this, it seems rather careless to speak of military rule as an imaginable -- and thus, implied as a slightly better -- alternative to non-PAP democratic rule.

The dangers of winner-takes-all

But how did Thailand end up like this? Thailand's 1997 constitution was probably as good as any Thai constitution would be. It was drafted with widespread consultation and included provisions for an independent constitutional court, an anti-corruption agency and electoral commission. Its value was further demonstrated when in November 2000, the first general election under this constitution produced the first majority government the country had ever seen, ushering in the prospect of effective government for a change. Thailand had only known either harsh military rule or weak coalitions since the 1930s.

So what went wrong? Basically, the politicised middle-class felt that Thaksin did not observe the spirit of the new constitution even as he might have observed the letter of the law. There was a sense, rightly or wrongly, that he was packing the independent courts and various commissions with his loyalists. He was not behaving in the consensual manner that Thais expected of their rulers. Partly, this expectation can be traced to the accommodative nature of Thai culture, but also, to a proud modern sense of civil rights, borne out of resistance to previous military and authoritarian regimes.

Eventually, this frustration with Thaksin's authoritarian streak boiled over. Without the means to contest his methods through either electoral politics, or the (neutered) independent bodies, the anti-Thaksin camp started taking to the streets in late 2005. The stalemate that resulted gave the military the opening it needed.

I think Singapore can learn from this example -- which is that unaccommodating authoritarianism, and a winner-takes-all mentality can put a country's civil peace and long-term stability at risk. It is better to ensure that our processes and institutions are more open, representative and flexible today, than to blithely say, if the PAP should fail to live up to voters' expectation, who then kick the party out at an election, let the military take over.

And this is where comments like "it is not the business of the PAP/government to give space to dissenters or the opposition" miss the mark. The first problem is the conflation of PAP with government. When a PAP politician assumes a state office, his responsibility to his party becomes secondary to his duty to the state. If the interest of the state is one of opening up the system to give space to dissent and to prune back the hegemony that the PAP exercises over civil, media, administrative and political life in Singapore, it is the duty of that office-holder to do so, even if it's not in the interest of the party. Otherwise, leaving Singapore open to a military putsch because we haven't insured against the prospect of the dominant party corroding from within is irresponsible, since as I have argued above, a military take-over offers no real solution.

No doubt, the argument will be rolled out that the government discharges its responsibility to Singapore's future by ensuring that the PAP never corrodes from within. But can anybody name a political party that has remained uncorrupted by power in perpetuity? Is that wide-eyed optimism the best insurance policy for Singapore?

© Yawning Bread 




Even during the Chun Doo Hwan period, there was considerable resistance to his rule. In May 1980, some 300,000 people protested against his take-over in the city of Gwangju. The army was sent in and according to the official tally, 207 people were killed. This figure, however, has been disputed as too few, by others.




  1. The quote is from http://www.singaporedemocrat.org/articleLKY_15092006.html, which in turned cited Reuters as its source. Lee was speaking at a forum held in conjunction with the World Bank/IMF 2006 annual meetings in Singapore, in September 2006. The other key speaker at the same forum was former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.
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  2. See also http://epress.anu.edu.au/mdap/mobile_devices/ch08s03.html - a concise discussion about the Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan regimes, and the tension between the military-bureaucratic regimes and democratic forces in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.
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