Army not sacred nor above criticism

Army not sacred nor above criticism

Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong performs a wai during a press conference following the Feb 8 massacre perpetrated by a low-ranking soldier in Korat. (Bangkok Post photo)
Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong performs a wai during a press conference following the Feb 8 massacre perpetrated by a low-ranking soldier in Korat. (Bangkok Post photo)

The Thai army is a closed system governed by feudal authoritarianism which breeds corruption and abuse of power. Yes? Tell me something new.

Thanks to army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong, we now know that the army is also a sacred institution and, as such, above criticism.

"Don't blame the army," he pleaded as he wiped away tears to defend the army against public anger at the armoury's shocking lack of security that led to the Korat mass shooting tragedy.

"Throughout the whole incident, there were only criticisms of the army. I want you to know that the army is a national security organisation, a sacred organisation. Don't blame the army. Don't insult the soldiers.

"The military is a sacred national security organisation," he repeated.

"If you want to blame anyone, blame me. I, Gen Apirat Kongsompong, accept all the blame because I am the army chief."

The tears. The dramatic pause to hold back emotion. The voice cracking with sadness. The army chief wanted to show his grief. But it backfired spectacularly.

Whatever his intention, the army chief's show of sadness came across as self-pity. This is not what the public wants to see from military leadership. Nor do they want Gen Apirat to cut short the tragedy that took so many lives just by shedding tears or by declaring "Blame me, not the army" and making it sound like a huge self-sacrifice.

A country in shock does not need such drama. People need a show of responsibility and accountability. They want the military's security failures at army camps urgently fixed to prevent future tragedies. They want an end to the military's longstanding internal corruption and power abuse.

People are fed up. And angry. So many scandals in army camps, so many deaths of conscripts and junior officers, yet the crimes were simply swept under the carpet. Now, 29 people were killed by a soldier's madness and army negligence and laxity. The last thing they want to hear is that they should be grateful to the military and keep their mouths shut because the army is a "sacred" institution.

The public wants the army chief to answer their questions. Why is stealing weapons in an army camp so easy? Why on earth was the gunman able to leave the barracks without being stopped? Why didn't the army immediately follow the rogue soldier? It took almost three hours for the gunman to arrive at Terminal 21 where he started his shooting rampage. Almost three hours. Wasn't that enough time to stop the gunman? Why did it not happen?

Instead, they got a lecture on how society is indebted to the military's sacrifices to save and serve the country. The army chief also dismissed public criticism of the army's handling of the mass shooting by one of its men.

"The moment he pulled a trigger, he became a criminal, not a soldier anymore," the army chief said, explaining why the military let the police handle the violence.

The public is furious at what they consider a lame excuse and a total lack of responsibility. Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha's insensitivity when he went to Korat after the mass shooting was enraging.

And if the army chief wanted to dampen public anger, he ended up adding fuel into the fire. Did he have any regrets? The following day, Gen Apirat lashed out at critics. "Even military dogs are grateful to the army." That is tantamount to saying that critics of the military are worse than animals.

Of all the outrageous statements from the army chief, the most eye-opening, and the most dangerous, was his declaration that the military is a "sacred" institution.

He used the Thai word sak sit, the supernatural powers that demand reverence and total submission. It goes without saying that disrespect or violations of such sanctity entail severe punishment, which can include deaths.

Is this self-perception -- or may I say self-delusion -- behind the military's persistent intervention in politics and no-holds violence against dissenters whom they regard as "worse than animals"?

Unfortunately, the military is not the only organisation in Thailand which runs like a feudal state without checks and balances on power. Like the military, the clergy run a closed, authoritarian system with a strict feudal hierarchy. Their systems similarly oppress their junior members while criticism is taboo. One difference: when the clergy can no longer command public faith, their power declines. But the military has weapons to maintain its raw power.

The police force, like the military, also runs with an autocratic caste system. At the lowest rung of the hierarchy are the non-commissioned officers who are often treated like dirt. Those who graduate from the police or military academies are the masters and only they can rise to the top.

Is it a coincidence that these three autocratic organisations are ridden with corruption, power abuse, and violence? Is this why they are fiercely resistant to external oversight and public calls for reform to protect their power?

The military promises to investigate and overhaul military housing projects and punish corrupt officials. Good. But the crux of the problem is the closed, non-transparent system that fosters corruption and abuse. Punishing individuals while protecting structural malaise is tantamount to hypocrisy.

The mass shooting in Korat and how the military deals with it should prompt us to look at the repercussions of the military culture and military dictatorship on our society.

Censorship, submission to power, a strict seniority system, conformity, hazing and other forms of violence as punishment, and sexism -- all this is part of the military culture that pervades every aspect of our life. Don't pin any hopes on the education system for change as it is the main state mechanism to indoctrinate society with military culture and its authoritarianism.

Since the 2014 coup, militarism has become stronger than ever in the state machinery along with the rise of ultranationalism. Military training -- and fear for soldiers -- starts as early as elementary school. Teachers heartily adopt military-like power and discipline to keep students in line. The bureaucracy keeps rolling out draconic laws to strengthen their power and silence the populace while the military continues to roll back decentralisation and punish dissenters.

Meanwhile, politics under military guidance is continuously breaking ethical standards and embracing double standards, turning a blind eye to what is right and wrong. Racist and sexist comments from the men in green are frequent. And despite economic hardship, the military's spending spree continues unabated. Many believe the pent-up public fury is a timebomb waiting to explode.

Gen Apirat believes those critical of the military and the pro-military government are unpatriotic. This is as false as the belief that the military is a sacred institution.

The military -- or military rule under the flimsy guise of electoral democracy -- is not the nation. Criticising them is not unpatriotic. It is the duty of active citizens who care about the country.

The military has the right to be proud of their profession. But it is still a profession, not an embodiment of sanctity that taxpayers must submit to and risk punishment for disobedience, like in feudal times.

This the 21st century. Like any organisations stuck in outdated traditions, the military must catch up with the times. Respecting people's voices is a good start. Making the military transparent and accountable is also crucial if Thailand has any chance at all of ending authoritarianism and achieving equality.

Dealing with corruption in the clergy and the police force is another big challenge for Thailand. It won't end if they continue as militarised organisations. But there is hope for change if the military takes the lead through transparency and community participation to return monks and police to the people. That is what leadership and patriotism are about.

The future of Thailand is grim indeed if people with power believe they are sacred, above criticism, oppress the powerless, and treat critical citizens as the ingrates worse than animals.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.


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