Browsing articles in "Military"
May 25, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Thai Military: A Control Freak?

Source: Getty Images / BBC

Crowds protest democratic return. Source: Getty Images / BBC

Thailand’s military announced that it would take over the country’s politically unstable situation this Thursday. It initially denied that it was a coup d’état. Over the weekend, the military dissolved the Senate signaling that a coup d’état was indeed being orchestrated. But to what extent is the situation in Thailand really that volatile? To begin with, Thailand’s socioeconomic has been improving. Income inequality has been extraordinarily reduced over the last two decades from a Gini Index of 45.22 in 1981 to 39.37 in 2010. Despite being hit by the world economic downturn, Thailand is now the largest vehicle producer in Southeast Asia. It is often referred to as a “tiger cub economy” as it has followed Asian Tiger economies’ path of economic progress. However, the development of political institutions has not reached the same level of economic advancement. So far, Thai society remains divided between two main groups: royalists and urban middle classes; and, the rural masses. The power struggle that has come into sight is an indication of the current vacuum of power of having an aging king unable to make decisions, the uncertainty concerning his succession and the possibility of democratization.

In order to understand the current situation, two aspects are pertinent. First, the Thai military has had great importance throughout the country’s history. Not only has it participated in nearly 20 putsches and coups since 1932, but it is a figure that has gained respect sometimes even more than the king. This may be so because the military strongman, Field Marshal PlaekPhibunsongkhram, managed to construct Thai national identity out of its diverse population during the 1930s-1940s. Second, all of the pro-establishment groups received positive incentives which have enabled them to maintain cohesion. These groups were supported by the United States as they offered air bases to bomb Indochina during the Vietnam War. These two aspects have strengthened the military’s prowess vis-à-vis challengers of the establishment, which are left-wing, rural and often segregated groups.

Thailand’s socioeconomic division has always been present. In spite of an improved income equality, such division is most visible than ever due to the corrosive sense of power vacuum and the fact that once excluded groups are now economically empowered. Since the 1960s, its GDP growth has not been impressive but its economy has grown a little less than the Asian Tigers. During this period it achieved growth rates of 3-5 percent. The country maintained these rates during most of the 2000s until 2009, when the global financial crisis hit the tiger cub. Today, its economy has barely grown (0.1% in 2011), which suggests that the current situation might have helped to fuel unrest. Using Huntington’s terms, Thailand has undergone a “Green Uprising” by which lower classes have expanded their voices through voting for left-wing representatives. The left-wing movement has been supported by the former elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who pursued populist welfare policies. Pro-establishment groups, including the military, ousted Thaksin in 2006. However, the powerful elite miscalculated that Thaksin had already managed to assemble some grassroots groups that are now protesting against the military takeover. Nevertheless, these groups remain uncoordinated. Accordingly, the minority (pro-establishment) still controls the judiciary and the military and it has used variegated strategies to rid of democratically elected leaders since 2001.

The lack of certainty about succession and the coup worries the international community. Nevertheless, the situation should be seen as both a threat and an opportunity for democratization. Although Thaksin remains in exile, he is a figure that has been able to articulate political preferences of the lower strata through populist policies amidst a monarchy. The royalty has remained silent and has humbly accepted the military coup. Some potential factors that could help untangle the situation are world powers like the United States and China, exit of foreign direct investment and increased coordination by the minority or the majority. Whether a politician, supported by Thaksin, rises with a more coherent and credible argument able to solve the impasse, allure members of the middle class, lower and middle income strata might be able to function unanimously. Yes, the power of the numbers matters. But it only does when its goals are articulated into a specific set of achievable actions. So far, the military is trying its best to weaken such efforts.

Jan 23, 2014

The Magic Mountain

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria (from BBC).

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria in a hotel of the town (from BBC).

On Wednesday, a long-expected international conference backed by the United Nations began in Montreux, Switzerland. Its participants, representatives from 40 countries (including the U.S. and Russia) and delegates from the Syrian government and some factions of the Syrian opposition, discuss the so-called Geneva communiqué. This document was issued in 2012 as a result of another international meeting about the Syrian conflict. In general, it provides a framework within which the war will come to an end, including the stop of violence, the formation of a transitional government with full executive authority, and the holding of elections, among other things. After a one-day break, the meeting will resume on Friday in Geneva.

The first day of the encounter was dedicated to speeches from all the delegations attending it. Leaving rhetoric aside, this first glance at the conference illustrates the obstacles that very likely it will find in the near future. The most salient point of divergence is that while the U.S., most of the foreign delegations, and the Syrian opposition insist that Bashar Al-Assad must step down and cannot be present in a transition government, the official Syrian representatives assure that the continuation of Al-Assad as president is not to be discussed. Further, for the Syrian government the conference is not about discussing the formation of a transition authority (even more, Syria is the only participating delegation that did not subscribe the Geneva communiqué), but about the Syrian people’s demands of “eliminating terrorism”, “terrorists” being how they refer to Al-Assad opponents (in addition to the fact that there have been reports of Al-Qaeda activity in Syria). Therefore, there are different and diverging goals among the attendants to Montreux and Geneva.

Another aspect that could complicate the conference is its measures of success. It would be very unlikely that the main goal of the Geneva communiqué, the constitution of a transition government, is achieved. However, there are other more specific goals that will be discussed in the second part of the meeting. While the Montreux event featured speeches from each delegation, Geneva will hold more head-to-head mediated conversations between the parts in conflict. It is expected that the talks in these sessions go around issues such as the provision of humanitarian assistance and the protection of human rights in the areas of conflict, the facilitation of the flow of people between zones controlled by the government and by the opposition, or the continuation of the provision of basic public services throughout the country. The extent to which deals can be struck in these issues is still to be seen, but it appears they have more chances of success than topics related to the transitional government.

But even within that reduced set of expectations about the conference, whatever results it could bring could find further difficulties to be implemented in the ground. This is mainly due to the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. Its largest and arguably most visible section for external viewers, the Syrian National Council, is not sitting at the table because it refuses to discuss anything until Al-Assad leaves power. The leader of another large group, the National Coordination Committee, refused to participate because its delegation did not have sufficient time to prepare itself. Finally, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces yielded to pressures from other countries and agreed to take part in the discussions, although many of its members did not agree with this because they wanted guarantees that Al-Assad would step down.

The picture above could suggest that the prospects for the conference in Geneva are grim. However, it must also be underlined that the current assessment is made taking as after just one day of work in which top-level diplomats (mostly foreign ministers from the participating countries) gave speeches. The session in Geneva could be more productive, constructive, or at least less polarized, given its interactive nature and the presence of mediators. At the same time, the top objective, the formation of a transition government without Al-Assad, could almost be ruled out. Once works in Geneva begin and some time as gone by we can have a clearer idea about what to expect from this conference.

Aug 29, 2013

The Phantom of Liberty

USS Gravely, reportedly deployed and ready for an eventual attack against Syria (archive photo from El Pais).

USS Gravely, reportedly deployed and ready for an eventual attack against Syria (archive photo from El Pais).

After accusations of chemical weapons being used in the conflict in Syria, the international community has raised its voices and threatens to intervene in some way. Leaders from the U.S. (who has prepared Tomahawk missiles pointing towards Syria), France and the U.K., (François Hollande saying the infamous gassing of innocents will not be left unpunished, while the British Parliament waiting for the U.N.’s inspection to finish to define what it will do), NATO (assuring the unacceptability of the use of such weapons), Russia and Iran (threatening with some kind of retaliation if Syria is attacked) and other major military powers emphasize they either will not stand still in the face of the use of chemical weapons or in the face of an “unprovoked” attack against Syria. As in the days of the Cold War, both sides seem just to be waiting who makes the first move to have a motive for reaction.

There are several questions that must be addressed in this context. One of the first issues is why a potential intervention would have to wait until now. Of course, the alleged reason, the utilization of chemical weapons by Bashar Al-Assad’s government against its opposition, is sufficient. The international community is ready to defend human rights and to prevent a President from hurting the citizens of the country he’s ruling. It is difficult, though, not to think that if in case an intervention would have happened earlier the use of chemical weapons could have been prevented in the first place. However, this leads to another problem which brings uncomfortable memories about the Iraq campaign: what argument would be wielded to explain action in Syria? If it would not have been something shocking, such as now is the use of chemical weapons, then the call would have had little echo and would have contributed to stamping the “imperialist” or another kind of label in whoever made it.

Furthermore, again retrieving the Iraq experience, it is not clear what will the objective of an intervention would be. For sure, it is too early to think about such purpose, even more because no course of action, uni- or multilateral, is yet defined. One can just speculate about when and how the mission will be completed. Will the masterminds and operators of the chemical attack be detained, trialed, and punished? That would be the case if the intervention strictly stuck to punishing the use of such weaponry. But their use was not an isolated event, as it occurred in the context of an authoritarian government fighting its people. It can be argued that such leaders should not be allowed to continue in office because of the domestic and potentially international threat they represent. The problem then goes to that will be done the day after Al-Assad is gone. The Syrian opposition has been in pains trying to form a united front against the government, for which it can be expected they will not have either an easy time when it is their turn to rule.

Unfortunately, all those questions are very difficult to answer. For each argument supporting intervention, there will be another one condemning it under grounds inefficient past intervention or of sovereignty violation, or arguing that a multilateral approach, centered on U.N. action, must be followed. Additionally, it is unclear who will have ears for the answers to those questions and be willing to change their behavior in relation to what the discussion says. Now it is time to speak up and, hopefully, prevent an already complex situation from becoming even more complicated by involving the international community in warfare.


Jun 4, 2013

Manning in Maryland

Bradley Manning walking to the court on the first day of the trial (from El País).

Bradley Manning walking to the court on the first day of the trial (from El País).

Yesterday began in the Fort Meade base in Maryland the military trial against Bradley Manning for accessing classified documents of the Army and sharing them while being deployed in Iraq as an intelligence analyst, which ultimately led to their publication in the Wikileaks website. He faces 22 charges, which are mostly related to wrongfully accessing computers and to misusing their information, government-owned and sensitive. The most relevant one, as foreseen in the pre-trial hearings, is that of aiding the enemy (namely, Al-Qaeda) for which he faces a life-long sentence. He has pleaded guilty of 10 of those charges, not including the latter.

The process and the charges must be considered in two stages. First, Manning’s direct actions. He has mentioned that he decided to share the documents for wide publication expecting to increase awareness about some of the failures of the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq. Otherwise said, Bradley wanted to promotion of transparency in governmental information.

Clearly, it was a very dumb way to do it. To begin with, he broke the ethics of any public servant, which is that the information with which one works belongs to the government and must be handled with the utmost care. In addition, the nature of the data he shared could have put his and his teammates’ integrities at risk. Next, he did put the U.S. in a very shameful situation as diplomatic communications, containing judgments sometimes not so favorable about other countries’ politicians which are publicly called friends but are privately criticized. And finally, he did not need to expose his military career in such a way for the world to know the severe problems in the U.S. foreign policy and armed interventions. Manning’s lawyer statement that he was “young and naïve but well-intentioned” is maybe a correct but too soft description of his actions.

The second stage of the process and the charges is helping the enemy. Once Manning has accepted his culpability in the first stage, the trial will move to demonstrating that Osama bin Laden asked for and received information that was available in Wikileaks. Whether or not this happened was out of control of Manning or, at least, he shares responsibility with Julian Assange, the manager of the Wikileaks site, and its webmaster, who are not wanted by justice for those charges. In the second stage of the process Manning will not be trialed for what he did, but for what happened after he acted. Can he be processed for something over which he did not (or not solely) have control?

Manning’s process is a court martial, thus having a special set of assumptions and rules. It is not a “normal” case of disclosed governmental information; its most disastrous use will lead not the destruction of a political career benefitting the adversary political party, but to endangering the lives of soldiers, the nullification of any progress made in the campaign, and, ultimately, putting at risk the national security. In any democratic regime government transparency must be enhanced, and the public must be made aware of the failures of government actions. Similarly, public officers who abuse of the access they have to privileged information must be punished. That is out of the question here, and Manning seems to understand it. What is pending of decision is whether he can be held accountable for what other people did with the information he released. That might be an unjustified burden on a single person, given the openness and plurality expected in a democratic regime. But, again, this is a military environment, and it is not only a judge, but his superiors, who will have the last word.

May 7, 2013

A fog of War: Redux

Rubble in Damascus after an air strike (from The New York Times).

Rubble in Damascus after an air strike (from The New York Times).

The last days the international press has seen a flow of reports related to the alleged utilization of chemical weapons in Syria. However, the information has been contradictory, incomplete, or vague. Some sources say that Bashar Al-Assad’s government has used those weapons against the guerrilla. Others have suggested that it is the rebels who have recurred to them. There is no confirmation on any of those two sets of statements, but some people say that interviews with doctors in the field could be enough to sustain them. For the time being, the Obama administration has no incontrovertible evidence on the use of chemical weapons, and thus the red line that would propel some kind of action has not been yet crossed.

What has been mentioned in the news brings about the same questions that emerge in the prelude of what could become a foreign intervention to protect human rights of a threatened group or to prevent a government from becoming an international menace. Here are some of them: What kind of evidence is needed before a criminal or threatening situation can be confirmed? What kind of confirmation is needed before the option of foreign intervention can be brought to the table? When or why should U.S. interventions be backed by international support? In the case of Rwanda, the decision to act was taken until sufficient evidence had been accumulated to indicate that the massacre had occurred, once it was too late to do anything substantive. In the case of Iraq, photos shown as evidence of Saddam Hussein possessing nuclear weapons were misleading or plain lies. And in almost any single case in the last two decades when the U.S. has decided to act alone it has met the skepticism or disapproval from the international community.

The openness of those questions points out that when crises such as the current one in Syria appear bad decisions can be easily made. Decision-makers (from the analyst in a civilian intelligence agency up to the President) face a lot of uncertainty, hence risk, and are under severe stress. What they decide or suggest doing will have implications on the lives of many people in the country where the intervention might take place and on the lives of U.S. personnel who will participate in the operations. And there is always present the risk of failure, with its multi-faceted consequences: international embarrassment, loss of domestic popular support, attacks from the partisan opposition, or the deterioration of the crisis in the intervened country.

But maybe the most important question that also emerges in these contexts is what has been learned from previous experiences. An editorial in the New York Times urged the Obama administration not to be detained by past mistakes from taking decisive action in Syria. What could be added to that recommendation is that past mistakes should also inform current decision-making processes by teaching decision-makers how to work better under the somewhat normal uncertainty of war environments. In the following days we will see what, if any, are the lessons of U.S. interventions abroad over the last fifteen years.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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