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Leading up to the Second World War, the Japanese government was at odds with itself over a potential war with the United States. A strong militaristic culture built around outward expansion and the imperial dynasty hampered decision making by the civilians and moderates in parliament.
In Eri Hotta’s book, Japan 1941, she details the infighting between the generals and the insecurities of the country’s military class that to led Japan’s entry into the Second World War and the military’s own destruction.
Many parallels can be drawn between the pre-war situation in Japan and the current military-civilian relationship in Thailand.
Civilian governments in Thailand for the past century have had to tread carefully around the military especially regarding appointments and budget allocation for fear of a military coup – that is during the time when the military didn’t rule the country outright.
Things were not that much different in the Japan of the early 20th century.
Since the Meiji restoration in the mid 19th century, the Japanese military had modernized and had taken a central role in politics. Generals influenced civilian decisions, had a major say in budget allocations and government policy with many took up peacetime posts within the government.
In Thailand, things have been much the same. The military apparatus feels that its central mission is to govern and not serve.
The Thai generals that graduate from Chulachomklao Military Academy learn that theirs is a sacred duty (a made up mandate) to defend the nation’s traditional structure from the encroachment of liberalism or modernity.
A loss of power in Japan
It is also interesting to note how the military lost its power and prestige in Japan. In Herbert Bix’ autobiography of Emperor Hirohito, one of the central themes was how devastating the war defeat was for the country not in just material terms but in terms of culture.
When the instruments of surrender were signed on board the USS Missouri in 1945, Japan not only unconditionally surrendered her arms, ammunition, and sovereignty, she also surrendered a hundred years of military culture built up around the cult of imperial divinity.
It took two atomic bombs, millions of war dead, and countless atrocities to pull the country into modernity but that is what happened. With Japan’s defeat in World War 2, the United States forcefully extracted Japan from the mysticism and totalitarianism built up by the military and the ruling class and shoved the country into the 20th century.
But what of Thailand?
What would it take for Thailand to do the same?
As Thailand does not harbor the same expansionist mindset that the Imperial Japanese Army had, a war defeat looks unlikely and improbable.
But with a military-backed government in place and the two most powerful men in government being army generals, Thailand’s military culture is actually on more shaky ground than one thinks.
Generals Prayut Chan-ocha and Prawit Wongsuwan has led the country from disaster to disaster with the current pandemic being the biggest crisis the country has seen for over five decades.
Coupled that with a growing protest movement that has drawn into question age-old institutions and the culture of despotic totalitarianism perpetuated by the army and there is every reason to believe that Thailand is at a major crossroads.
Should this government fail to contain or even decisively defeat the scourge of Covid-19 and the economic ramifications of the pandemic, this could be our USS Missouri government.
Already conservative Thais that eagerly ushered in the military in the 2014 coup are questioning their own decisions and whether generals should ever rule the country again.
The conservative middle class and the upper class Thais that make it possible for the generals to carry out coup after coup have seen their allegiances waning.
If that is the case, then something positive might emerge from the current pandemic. If the military suffers a defeat now, it could be the end of their involvement in Thailand’s governance forever.