Opinion: The army cannot be neutral in political conflicts because that idea reinforces exceptionalism

“They’re suppose to be neutral in this,” a friend messaged me after the army chief Narongpan Jitkaewthae admitted that soldiers were among the police on Sunday as they confronted pro-democracy demonstrators.

Narongpan revealed the presence of army personnel after social media posts showed men in military haircuts and yellow shirts mingling among the police. 

According to the army, the soldiers were just there to facilitate and observe and not actively take part in the confrontation between the police and the protesters – clashes which left five demonstrators injured and needing medical care. 

“They’re not suppose to take sides, they’re suppose to neutral,” my friend repeated in frustration. 

Understandably, the presence of army personnel during violent confrontation between the state and protesters has everybody on edge. 

After all, Thailand has a long and infamous history of soldiers ‘facilitating’ violent crackdowns against demonstrators. It happened a decade ago against the red shirts, two decades ago against students and pro-democracy demonstrators. 

It happened in the 1970s against unarmed students. 

But the idea that the army and the military are supposed to be ‘neutral’ in a conflict between the state and protesters is part of the reason we’ve gotten to this point. 

The idea that the army and the armed forces are somehow independent of the governing structure and can ignore the civilian government’s chain of command (even if the current government are filled with former army personnel) and be ‘neutral’ is one of the major underlying problems in Thai society and the root cause of the current political crisis. 

The army already believes that it holds an exalted position within Thai society, as the moral arbiter of what is right and what is wrong. It views itself as the defender of Thailand’s chastity, the sword that protects the crown and the culture from foreign corruption. 

But this worldview should not and cannot exist within a 21st century democracy. We must not treat the army and the army chief as independent of the government. We cannot treat army chiefs, Air Force chiefs, admirals and police chiefs as celebrities who hold independent power to the policies of the government. 

They are not allowed to be neutral. 

They must follow the command of the prime minister no matter what that command is. The chain of command must lead to the top and to the top we must hold responsible for all decisions including violent decisions. 

Because the alternative is to think that the army are independent, that they can ignore the chain of command and act on their own.

This alternative only reinforces the army’s unfounded belief in its own position. It only reinforces the decaying culture of exceptionalism that is taught since the very first day of cadet school. 

And we see where this line of thinking leads. This thinking has engendered nearly 20 coups since the founding of the constitutional monarchy in 1932. This line of thinking has emboldened men like current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to seize power against democratically elected governments because they think they know better. 

This line of thinking has led to the current political impasse and this line of thinking must stop. 

The military must never be independent or neutral in any political conflict ever again. They are tools of the state, enslaved to its chain of command and incapable of independence. They are not exceptional, generals are not celebrities whose words we must hang on. They are civil servants, paid by the people’s tax money, and must serve the people. 

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