Written by Paul Chambers.
Since 2005, Thailand has suffered from seemingly-interminable turmoil between monarchists, military and mostly-urban interests on one side, and the forces of populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, police, and provincial business on the other. The tension led to a 2006 coup and the rise of diametrically-opposed protest movements.
One element of this turmoil that has largely escaped notice has been the rapport between the Shinawatra family and the police, as well as the intensifying frictions between this police and the armed forces.
Elected Prime Minister in 2001, Thaksin, a tycoon with extensive security sector connections, utilized the police to bolster his influence among security services. Indeed, he was the first politician since the 1950s to employ such a strategy. He soon established a dominant police faction through material inducements and promises of power. During his 2001-2006 administration, the share of national budget for the police increased while that for the armed forces diminished. Moreover, under pro-Thaksin governments, the number of ex-police cabinet ministers increased, expanding to four.
Thai police have generally been sympathetic to Thaksin because he was formerly a policeman himself. Also, most police reside among local people rather than in isolated camps or are recruited from the local population where they work. Thus, any local pro-Thaksin sympathies tend to resonate among police. The largest areas where police are recruited are the rural north and northeast—hotbeds of pro-Thaksin sentiment.
Under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, (2011—Present), the government has drawn even closer to the police in three ways. First, the police budget has continued to climb. It rose to US$335 million baht in 2013 with a US$200 million “emergency” fund, making it more financially competitive with the military.
Second, Yingluck’s Puea Thai party has sought to co-opt the police. She has maintained four ex-policemen in each of her cabinets with two taking the slots of Deputy Prime Minister. Pol. Gen. Priewpan Damapong, brother of Thaksin’s ex-wife, became Police Chief (2011-2012) and now serves in the Puea Thai Party. Current Bangkok Metropolitan Police Chief Kamronrit Thupkrajang retires in 2014 and has been guaranteed a slot in Puea Thai. Meanwhile, Pongsapat Pongcharoen, Deputy Police Commissioner, was chosen by Thaksin to contest (unsuccessfully) the Bangkok governor’s election in 2013.
Third and finally, the Yingluck government has enhanced the power of police rather than the armed forces when it comes to major domestic order operations. Indeed, since coming to office, Yingluck has sought to give police a greater role in counter-insurgency operations in Thailand’s Deep South—a policy long dominated by the military. Similarly when defending itself against anti-Yingluck demonstrators, the government has used police rather than soldiers. In November 2012, the government applied the Internal Security Act against anti-Thaksin demonstrators but selected the police to carry out this task, not the army. Similarly, police rather than soldiers were used to enforce the Internal Security Act in late 2013 and the Emergency Decree in early 2014 against demonstrations led by Suthep Thaugsuban. Ultimately, the much-enhanced use of police for major internal security efforts rather than the army provides greater rationalization for an even larger police budget.
Yingluck’s closeness with the police has produced strains in relations with the armed forces—long the rival of police. Though there is a small pro-Thaksin military clique, it is dwarfed by the anti-Thaksin, Queen’s Guard/Eastern Tigers faction, led by Army Commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Suspicions between the military and the Yingluck government were already sky-high when her government took office in 2011 and most current military leaders remain disdainful of Thaksin. Also, under Yingluck, the Department of Special Investigations charged ex-Prime Minister Abhisit Vechachiwa with murder for close to 100 killings arising from the repression of a pro-Thaksin demonstration in 2010. Army officials were conspicuously not indicted in what appears to have been an attempt by Thaksin to pressure the military to be more receptive to the Puea Thai government. Moreover, senior military brass have felt inhibited by the Puea Thai government’s attempts to influence military reshuffles. But Yingluck’s clear preference for working with police—granting it elevated stature in internal security operations as well as appearing to co-opt the police leadership into the Puea Thai Party—has been a final straw.
Yingluck’s prolonged use of police against demonstrators in Bangkok since late 2013 has only increased military-police frictions. Clashing legal jurisdictions and allegations of partisanship by one side against the other have deepened their mutual distrust. The military opposed the issuance of the Internal Security Act in 2013 and the Emergency Decree in 2014, with police advocating them (ultimately the courts ruled that neither could be enforced). Since December 2013, grenade and bomb attacks on anti-Thaksin demonstrators as well as Red Shirts by unknown assailants have been blamed on elements of the country’s security forces, once again escalating tensions between the police and military, who have blamed each other. In January, Thailand’s Navy Commander threatened to sue the police for unfounded allegations of Navy complicity. In February, police alleged that army-supported gunmen, blending into the crowd of anti-government demonstrators had fired on one occasion into Red Shirts, and on another occasion into police officials. Evidence does suggest that parts of the police and military could indeed be involved in the tit-for-tat bombings. In that case, Thailand is set for heightened instability.
If tensions between police and military ever erupted into conflict, the losses would be high. The military and police possess roughly the same quantity of manpower though military firepower is much higher. Nevertheless, if the police opposed an attempted military coup, their resistance could pose problems for Army Commander Prayuth. After all, over the last months, large numbers of police have been brought from up-country to buttress police already in Bangkok to resist Suthep’s demonstrators. Add to this the probability that Red Shirt demonstrators would back the police and anti-Yingluck protestors would support the military, and you have the ingredients for police-military conflict which could descend into an extremely bloody affair.
Thailand is now in its 9th year of a deep split between elites, political parties, class-based social movements, and geographical regions of Thailand. However, it is where this division splits army from police—institutions with the greatest access to weapons—that the ingredients for a deadly and protracted civil war are the most ripe.
Paul Chambers is a political scientist and Director of Research, Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, Chiang Mai University. He is also a research fellow at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt and the German Institute of Global Area Studies in Hamburg.