The Parallels between Fiji and Thailand

Although it may not seem likely on the face of it, there are some significant similarities between the political situations of Fiji and Thailand. To understand why, we must start with some background and definitions. Fiji and Thailand are modern examples of praetorian societies. Prateorian societies are those in which social group and political competition occurs in non-institutionalized fashion. Rather than use mediating vehicles such as courts, parliaments, collective bargaining and the like, inter-group competition assumes direct action characteristics: street demonstrations, riots,strikes, lockouts, blockades, and outright physical conflict. This can be due to the failure of such institutions to accommodate social group and political competition within established boundaries of rules and procedure, or it can  be due to social and political group disregard for the institutions themselves. Where institutions such as parliament and the courts still function, they tend to microcosmically replicate the zero-sum approaches of the society at large: dominant groups manipulate the system to their own advantage and use it to punish their opponents. In turn, opponents attempt to wrest control of state institutions for their own gain. Compromise and toleration of difference are lost in the struggle.

The reason social praetorianism occurs is that there is not a shared majority consensus on the political “rules of the game.” This can be due to the lack of ideological consensus or disenchantment with the system as given. Either way, it spells trouble in the form of political and social instability. As a reflection of the surrounding society, this gives rise to something known as military prateorianism. Taking its name from the praetorian guard of Roman emperors, who were said to be the makers and unmakers of kings, a praetorian military emerges as the dominant political actor in socially praetorian societies by virtue of  the force of arms. It s the default option given generalized institutional failure, and as such is characterized by an internal (rather than external) security orientation, high levels of politicization and a strong interventionist streak.

There are two types of praetorian militaries: arbitrator (or mediator) and ruler. Arbitrator military praetorians assume control of government when civilian institutions break down, but do so only to re-establish the constitutional order and provide the law and order that gives civilian actors the time and space to re-establish a consensus on the rules of the political “game.” They usually enter into power via relatively peaceful coups and set themselves a non-partisan agenda as well as a specific timetable for withdrawal from government. The point of the intervention in the political system is to stop political bickering and re-establish the institutional bases of civilian rule.

Ruler military praetorians have no such limitations. Often emerging in the wake of repeated attempts at military arbitration between competing civilian groups, the ruler military has no timetable for withdrawal and a political, social and economic agenda of its own. They tend to be more violent than their arbitrator counterparts, in no small part because they see civilian society as undisciplined and chaotic and civilian politicians as venal, self-serving and corrupt. The modern archetypes were the military-bureaucratic regimes of Latin America in the 1970s, the Pinochet regime in Chile being the most notorious of them. They tend to hold power for a half decade or more in order to transform, via the use or threat of force, the basic socio-economic and political parameters of the praetorian societies in which they are located. When they withdraw, they do so under rules of the game they set down for their civilian successors.

Thailand has oscillated between periods of arbitrator and ruler military rule, interspersed with numerous failed attempts at democratic governance. In the current political crisis, the pro-royalist “yellows” (of airport blockade fame) and pro-government “blues” are vying with anti-government “reds”  (of ASEAN summit cancellation fame) to vie not so much for democracy (which is what they all claim) but for the favor of the Thai military when it finally steps back into power. The yellows are more elite and middle-class in social origin, whereas the reds are lower middle and working class in composition, so the historical odds favor the yellows (the blues are a cross-section of party loyalists of the current Prime Minister, disaffected yellows and hired thugs). But with an ailing King and more reds than yellows taking to the streets, the military may be swayed away from its traditional pro-royalist stance in the interests of securing majority support for a reformative coup. If this analysis is correct, it implies the inevitability of another Thai coup, most likely leading to a ruler military regime that embarks on a program of political reform that breaks with the partisan lines of the past. Given that it confronts a significant Muslim insurgency in the south of the country that has links to similarly-minded insurgent groups in the Philippines, the Thai military will be loathe to be drawn into politics and will only do so if the present levels of social praetorianism threaten to escalate into unacceptable levels of violence that challenge its monopoly of organized coercion within the territorial limits. It is for the Thai civilian elite to prevent this from happening, and so far they have shown no inclination to do so.

The Fijian military has repeatedly intervened in the country’s politics over the last two decades, and the Bainirarama regime is no exception. Fiji’s social praetorianism stems from the conflicts between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, a conflict that has socio-economic class as well as ethno-religios and linguisitic characteristics. Its civilian political elites have proven incapable of achieving consensus and have a strong penchant for corruption and nepotism. Thus the military sees itself as the “saviour” of Fijian society. With this latest “coup-within-a-coup,” (see Lew’s post immediately below) the Fijian military praetorians appear to be moving from an arbitrator to a ruler role, perhaps because they believe that the country is nowhere close to consensus on a reformed and reconstituted rules of the political game. I have written previously (“Bullying Fiji Part 2: The Inside Game”) some of the reasons why this may be so, but the larger point is that it appears that no amount of pressure from New Zealand or Australia will alter the conviction of Commodore Bainimarama and his colleagues in the Fijian armed forces hierarchy that it is in the country’s best interests to prevent a Thai-type scenario from developing. The UN may be able to exercise some pressure in curtailing Fijian military involvement in multinational “blue helmet” operations, but even then, with Russia and China on the Security Council, the likelihood of passing resolutions authorizing this form of sanction on Fiji for what is an internal matter is, to say the least, unlikely.

The are two dangers to ruler militaries, one specific and one general. The longer leaders of ruler militaries stay in power, the more enamored of the perks of the position they become. Whatever their good intentions at the onset, they tend to become increasingly despotic over time, losing sight of the original project in order to concentrate on their personal fortunes. That increases resentment against the regime and factionalisation within it, which essentially returns the praetorian situation to where it began. Moreover, the longer a military is in power, overseeing civilian ministries and involving itself in politics, the less its leaders are maintaining and honing their war-fighting command skills. This may not be an issue for a country without enemies, but for countries with internal or external threats, the erosion of a war-fighting capability strikes to the heart of the military raison d’etre and emboldens adversaries of all persuasions. Put another way, to remain in power is to lose war-fighting capability, and to lose war-fighting skills (including command skills) is to invite attack. This is especially true for the Thai military, but even the Fijians need to consider this given their regular deployment of troops to foreign conflict zones under UN mandate.

The final problem is that whether the military intervenes or not, and whether it does so in arbitrator or ruler guise, on-going situations of social praetorianism is the key element leading to state failure. One only need look at the recent history of Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan to understand the implications.

2 thoughts on “The Parallels between Fiji and Thailand

  1. reid

    It is for the Thai civilian elite to prevent this from happening, and so far they have shown no inclination to do so.

    The only effective action they could take will have to involve undermining popular support for the reds. That will mean social reform – addressing socio-economic disparity. In the context of the GFC that’s a big ask. In addition, their own supporters will also have to accept the role of the Thai monarchy will need review as part of this process. That’s another big ask.

    Looks like you could be right. Golly.

    What would a ruler military regime mean for ASEAN, Pablo? One imagines China would try to exploit the situation like it has in Burma?

  2. Rich

    Yup, I’d agree regarding depletion of military capacity in police states. This happened in Argentina, where a military that was good at torturing the opposition failed utterly when a medium-sized power came to get its islands back. Also Amin’s Uganda when it finally provoked Tanzania into invading.

    Could this also happen to western states if they engage in semi-permanent counter-insurgency/occupation missions in places like Afghanistan?

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