Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: A Coup By Any Other Name…

May be even more deadly.

Days after declaring Martial Law, Thai General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced a Military Coup on Thursday. Since then the Military has stationed troops in major cities, suspended the constitution, enacted a curfew, put a halt to both pro and anti-government protests, taken certain channels and media outlets out of circulation, and detained former PM Yingluck and members of her government. Classic Coup actions.

The Thai army says it will remain neutral and wants to enact certain reforms before holding elections. If this is indeed possible, this Coup could be less disruptive than previous Coups. The big question is what form will reforms take? Will they increase transparency and accountability, curbing the potential for future corruption? Or will they involve drastic legislative redistricting, in an attempt to marginalize the political voice of rural Thailand? Can the army orchestrate meaningful reforms while remaining a neutral intermediary between rival political parties?

The answers to these questions will likely determine how the Coup plays out. There is, however, something reassuring about the Thai army calling this a Coup, especially in comparison to Egypt’s “non-Coup”. By acknowledging this was in fact Coup, the Army is at least taking responsibility for what happens next in Thailand. We should not, for instance, expect a bloody crackdown as we saw in Egypt.

In a previous post, I emphasized the determinative role armed forces can play in regime change. All things equal, it is always best for the military to stay out of politics and focus on security and defense issues. But all things are not equal; countries face unrest for a variety of reasons, and this unrest can turn violent and often has adverse economic consequences, as it has in Thailand.

One could certainly question the necessity of this Coup, violence has not recently escalated and Prime Minister Yingluck agreed to step down 2 weeks ago. Economic deterioration seems to be the most obvious catalyst in this instance. Either way a Coup has occurred, and the focus now shifts to the actions of the Thai army.

If the Army is indeed committed to the things it says, it may be possible for a Coup to play a constructive role in Thailand’s political crisis. Last month the U.N. highlighted this constructive role security forces can play in peace efforts:

The United Nations Security Council today called on countries emerging from conflict and all those assisting them to prioritize the development of domestic police and national defence forces that maintain rule of law and respect human rights, in its first-ever stand-alone resolution on security sector reform.

Stressing that it is the sovereign right and the primary responsibility of the countries concerned to reform their security institutions, the Council, through the resolution, encouraged the UN and other international partners to strengthen their approach to training and other assistance, and to integrate it with other efforts to help rebuild national institutions.

Mr. Ban reaffirmed some of the principles of security sector reform outlined in his latest report on the issue, including the linkage between security efforts and broader processes of political and institutional reforms in the countries in question.

“Strengthening operational effectiveness must be combined with efforts to build a strong governance framework, robust accountability and oversight mechanisms, and a culture of integrity and respect for human rights. National ownership is imperative,” he said.

Security is a necessary prerequisite for stability, human development and economic growth. There is nothing inherently good or bad about security forces. They can restore order and champion principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law, or they can kill with impunity. There is something very interesting and deeply psychological about the broad spectrum of roles armed forces can play in society–it is in many ways a microcosm of free will.

Thailand is not Egypt, there is no reason to think just because there was a Coup, that the human rights environment in Thailand will deteriorate as it has in Egypt. However, certain actions by the Thai army certainly raise eyebrows, such as imposition of a curfew and suspensions of press freedom. Also, the Thai military’s track record does not inspire confidence; perhaps today is a new day?

All we can do now is wait and see, and hope the Thai army backs up its neutral rhetoric with appropriate actions and reforms. Except more on this topic in the coming weeks.

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Conflict Watch: The Determinative Role of Armed Forces In Regime Change (A Comparative Analysis)

Police leave their position around the Ukrainian p[arliament in Kiev on Friday after the country’s deputy army chief resigned in protest over government attempts to involve the army to put down the unrest rocking Ukraine. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Disgraced ex-Ukranian President Yanukovych (is it too soon to call him ex-President?) signed an agreement with the opposition for early elections and a new government, pulling Ukraine back from the brink of catastrophe. Do not confuse Yanukovych’s decision for altruism; rather it was a last resort after it became clear the Ukrainian army would not intervene on his behalf.

Today, the Ukrainian Armed Forces reiterated its commitment to neutrality. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commended the move, and his support is well founded. A comparative analysis of recent protest movements shows the determinative role Armed Forces play in domestic political conflicts:

Egypt: In modern Egyptian history, the Army has been the strongest and least unaccountable force in domestic politics. It is therefore unsurprising those in control of the Army are determined to ensure their spot at the top of the pyramid (no pun intended) is preserved. The Egyptian military has a vested interest in a protracted civil conflict; by creating an adversary in the Muslim Brotherhood, it has secured an important role in Egyptian life and public support. Indeed, military supremacy was enshrined in a recently passed constitutional referendum.

The Egyptian military determined the outcome of Egyptian politics by removing democratically elected President Morsi by a coup (as opposed to allowing a political process of impeachment and new elections to decide who leads). The army has restricted media independence and cracked-down on all dissenters (including many who were instrumental in removing previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and the ineffectual President Morsi). Now General Sisi–the very man who organized the coup–is poised to take over as Egypt’s next “democratically elected” president.

Syria: In Syria’s dynastic authoritarian regime, the armed forces are controlled exclusively by President Assad; the military cannot be expected to support the will of the people. Assad ordered a military response to peaceful protests, resulting in a protracted civil war with no end in sight.

Thailand:  The Thai army is committed to remaining neutral in anti-government protests (which was not a given; Thailand has a long history of military intervention in politics), allowing the political process to play itself out (the army has positioned itself near protest sight for security purposes, but hasn’t taken a side).

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has proposed early elections; her opposition wants an appointed caretaker government to implement reforms before elections are held. In a recent development, Yingluck has been called in to answer for corruption charges related to a rice subsidy (a policy symbolic of her Pheu Parties popularity with Thailand’s poor), which could result in her impeachment.

Venezuela: Paratroopers we’re called in to “maintain the peace”, which is allegedly a cover for a brutal crackdown of the anti-Maduro opposition. The future remains uncertain in Venezuela; if reports of a bloody crackdown are true, a protracted civil conflict is likely.

When it comes to regime change, the means are just as important as the endsThe extent to which Armed Forces remain neutral / indiscriminately uphold security (in order to give the political process time to run it’s course) is a good indication of both how “ugly” protests will become, and the direction a country will move ex post facto.

In Egypt the military could have remained neutral, allowing the Egyptian people to impeach Morsi and setup elections. Instead, the military decided to intervene, securing it’s own interests. Morsi had to go, but the way he was removed has set the country on a path divergent from pluralistic democracy. In a similar vein, Sisi may indeed be the President Egyptians want. If so, why the need to crackdown on dissenters?

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck may indeed be a corrupt ruler unworthy of her office. If this is the case, allow the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to conduct an impartial investigation. If she is found guilty, there may be grounds for impeachment. If not, the vocal minority opposition will have to rethink it’s position.

Notably, the Thai Military is allowing the political process to determine the countries political future (as in Ukraine), increasing the likelihood that a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Thailand can emerge from this current bout of unrest (Unlike Egypt, Syria, and likely Venezuela).

If a countries Armed Forces are committed to the goal of pluralistic democracy, the best thing they can do is remain neutral and allow domestic political conflicts to be resolved politically. Democratic governance is derived from “soft power“–inclusive politics, non-violent protest, self-determination. The need to resort to force against non-violent protests is proof in and of itself that human rights rhetoric is being used to human rights violations.

When the global champions of human rights (U.S., E.U., U.N. etc) urge deescalation and dialogue, these are not empty words (as Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has urged in Venezuela). Over the past few decades, “soft power” has played an increasingly important role in both domestic and international affairs. Governments that embrace this shift will ultimately be the most successful.