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A Lecture for SPDC: BKK POST: The r

Subject: A Lecture for SPDC: BKK POST: The role of the military in  ensuring free and fair elections in a democratic society 

May 3, 1999  
The role of the military in ensuring free and fair elections in a democratic
The following is a lecture given recently by Thailand's former Supreme
Commander at the Centre for Strategic and International Affairs in Jakarta,

Gen Saiyud Kerdphol
Does the military have role to play either in democracy or, more
importantly, in
a transition to democracy? A short answer can be: the military have virtually
no role in governance and as much in all cases "keep out of politics". The
military can and ought to play a positive role by joining other sectors of
society working towards ensuring that this country has free and fair
In all fairness, the relationship between military and civilian politics is
similar to that of "the chicken and the egg". My personal belief is that while
the military is trained for the protection of the country, its moral ideas and
security, it is equally a duty of the military to cooperate with the rest of
society in order to ensure that the free choice of the majority is
respected. I
believe that our own experience in Thailand can provide some insights and
helpful hints in this regard.
The Thai ExperienceThe situation in Thailand during my time is far from, if
unimaginable, in today's Thailand. Two factors categorised our society then.
The country was governed by a strongman military dictator on the one hand and
faced with a communist insurgency from 1965 to 1985 on the other hand. The
insurgency presented us with the challenge of preserving the integrity of our
nation which was threatened by what we saw then as unfamiliar ideology,
mind-set and a foreign state model for organising our society.
Two sad reminders stand out from those days: the massacre of students
protesting against the regime in 1973 and 1976, and the consequent flight of
many to the jungle as a result of these massacres.A dissatisfied intellectual
elite found a following in rural villagers whose quality of life was extreme
poverty. Meanwhile, His Majesty the King took the unusual step of
appointing an
interim prime minister who led an unstable government, leading once again to
the inevitable event of a military coup led by "new" military figures. The

serious determination of the situation in the countryside at the time
my serious interest in democracy and popular participation.
As a young 43-year-old officer, I was assigned, in 1965, with the task of
planning and organising the counter-insurgency in Thailand. This turned out to
be a great experience and one which has had a long-lasting influence on my
life. Since the military solution had been the usual resort since 1965, I was
convinced that the problem was political in nature and as such had to be
resolved politically rather than through military means. I believed then, as I
believe now, that the use of the military solution actually helped increase
popularity of the insurgency to the extent of enabling it to launch an armed
I took the insurgency's anti-government propaganda very seriously. Two closely
related accusations were the focus of this propaganda: dictatorship and
imperialism. One important claim was that our government at the time was not
democratic, but was instead a military dictatorship. It was also claimed that
we had relied on assistance from foreign imperialist powers, mainly the USA.
This was of course part of the familiar jargon of the cold war period. The
rural people, who were neither well-educated nor well-informed, believed in
this propaganda especially since the government had relied mainly on the
military solution instead of any meaningful political action. My foremost task
was to mount a counter-propaganda aimed at convincing rural as well as urban
people that we were more nationalistic and democratic than the insurgents.
It became clear to us that dealing with the situation would require some
serious attention to the social, economic and civil rights needed for
the quality of rural life; and would also require restoration of law and order
with the necessary-and only when necessary - military action. This realisation
presented Thailand with the then unique possibility of cooperation amongst the
military, the police and the civilians.
The military was thus instrumental in developing the country's infrastructure
including access to markets, utilities, and education. At the same time,
various Royal projects furthered a new temperate climate. One example was the
provision of the necessities for growing vegetables and fruits in rural areas
as a substitute for opium cultivation. Another example was the creation of an
environment to facilitate surrender and rehabilitation which included
access to
land and other facilities.
The military therefore had a major role to play in bringing an end to the
insurrection and creating a suitable climate for holding elections to form a
new government. But the military was not involved in conducting these
elections. The moral of this story is that it is possible for the army to
cooperate with the rest of the society to achieve democracy. In fact, one can
confidently say that the Thai military felt too comfortable to return to the
barracks. I say this despite the last coup attempt in 1992, which I hope and
believe to be the last such bid.
In Thailand we had our share of "guided democracy" where a political party was

mainly supported by the military and so on. Governments created under such
circumstances are not usually "by the people and for the people", to quote
President Abraham Lincoln, because elections in these cases were not free, not
fair and lacked credibility. To solidify the transition to democracy, it is
absolutely necessary to allow the people to express their views and make their
choices through free and fair elections.
The elections we had then were marred by vote-buying, by coercion and other
illegal means. These elections were simply fraud. People elected this way will
certainly try to pay back or recuperate their expenses. Once any one goes that
way, the rest of the story is all too familiar. With the danger of this
into a vicious circle, it is never too late to put the country on the right
path. It is never too late to try.
I believe-and this may sound as a cliche to some-that there is a solution for
every problem. I keep reminding myself of this all the time. If the problem is
lack of freedom and meaningful popular participation in the running of the
country, then the solution is to try our best to create a suitable environment
for free and fair elections whereby such participation can be achieved.
The Indonesian ConnectionWe share with you a serious economic situation and
presence of imminent violence. There is no doubt that economic deterioration
and poverty lead to violence, or can lead to violence if we ignore some of our
people's most pressing claims. Your military seems to have understood this
and has rightly given itself a more appropriate role of assisting various
organs of the Indonesian civil and political society in attempting to satisfy
the needs of the populace.
I say this and I am aware of the delicate issue pertaining to the
allocation of
some seats to the military which may present a conflict of interest in the
sense of the military involvement in political life.
As you all know this is a criticism which has been echoed in various quarters.
There is however a positive step taken to separate the police from the
military. In other words, to separate combatant defence forces from the
non-combatant forces concerned with civil situations. It should be understood
therefore, that it is the role of the police to keep law and order, and to
strive to attain an atmosphere of freedom that will allow free and fair
It is the role of the police to keep law and order after the elections. Of
course the military can always be called upon to help when the situation so
convincingly demands.This step is indeed one in many towards carving a proper
role for the military in a future true democratic society. But it will provide
some of the best contributions that can be made by the military at this stage
of Indonesian politics. Had we earlier understood the results of not acting
soon enough, we would have avoided unrest, bloodshed, corruption and perhaps
the bubble economy.
However, given the Thai experience, I certainly believe that there is no need
to fear a well-planned and carefully carried out "return to the barracks". I
think you have already started your quest towards this end by allowing the

population to express their free will through hopefully free and fair
Another important lesson we learnt from our experience in Thailand is the
ability of the professional army, of both regulars and conscripts, to acquire
skills through training ranging from literacy, leadership, management and a
wide range vocational education. The military can be a source of economic
activities that will ultimately lead to improving the standard of living.
The military in our country contributes to various economic and social
activities: education, youth activities, medical services, construction, water
supplies, forestry protection, and disaster relief to mention but a few. Most
of these skills can be used by people after they leave the military. For
example, the majority of soldiers, who are normally from poor rural areas,
been entrusted with some leadership in their communities. This fact can
certainly be used to affect a positive change and democratisation. The present
generation of Thai military leadership were once young soldiers and officers
who participated in the counter-insurgency, but quickly developed a strong
sense of support for democracy ever since. Their support for democracy has
continued to this day. I have no doubt that this will also be true in the case
of ABRI regardless of the differences in our experiences.
For those of you who are young, I hope you will prove me right. For those of
you who are not so young, I would like to share with you some final
thoughts of
democracy, politics and the military.
A Special PerspectiveI founded a neutral group, in 1985, dedicated to
democratic development and free elections rather than joining any political
party or organisation as some of my other colleagues did. My own view was that
joining a political party, especially for someone in my position, would not
have contributed to solving some of the pressing political problems.
Instead, I
believed then as I believe now, joining politics would have set the wrong
example and could have ended up complicating our political problems rather
providing a solution to them.
My group is called in our language Asa Pracha Matti, the People's Mandate. Our
work focuses on election monitoring which started with the Thai elections of
1986 and has continued ever since. Our work today covers various aspects of
democratisation including election monitoring. The group changed its name to
Poll Watch, or Ong Korn Klang in Thai. It is still evolving and growing. We
will soon be known as PNET-the People's Network for Free and Fair Elections in
Thailand. The constitution of this new group has already been adopted and we
are in the final stages of setting it up.
Is politics for everyone?"Man is a political animal", so goes an old but all
too familiar saying. People have always known two essential skills: how to
together and how to find their food and try to improve their living condition.
While the first is the political way, the second can be called the economic.
These are the ying and yang of our collective life. The political and the
economic system ought to be compatible, otherwise they will certainly destroy

each other. A democratic tree can grow well in a market economy soil. In this
sense, politics is for everyone, the military and civilians, and must not be
left to the professional politicians or those who aspire to be so.
I think it is more useful to divide politics into two: partisan and
non-partisan. Both appeal to the political animal in each one of us and they
are not mutually exclusive.
The non-partisans are the ones who work for the betterment of society. They do
not undertake this work as a profession nor as a vocation to make self-profit.
They are guided by their social commitments and sense of responsibility,
not by
party lines or manifestos. Their involvement is rather for the benefit of the
entire nation. The examples I have in mind are those of groups such as the
Rotary and Lion Clubs. Their members include the army and all others who serve
with one common goal: to contribute to the development of our society and to
eradicate injustice, poverty and corruption. The overall end of this goal
is to
work towards a just and orderly society, where justice prevails and people
enjoy a decent standard of living.
Achieving this goal can be an impossible dream unless community leaders,
professionals, NGOs, concerned citizens and the army can all join hands in
important volunteer endeavour. This work should be recognised and given the
highest honour as a work of non-partisan citizens.
This way, the "silent majority" can finally bring about different standards of
values and responsibilities amongst elected representatives who are otherwise
paid to do their political work. But when the partisan politician lives up to
these standards, the salary he receives for his work may well be deemed an
honorarium and not to be equated with profiting from his position.
Politics is after all part of life and should aim to serve people
regardless of
its type or nature. So I once again reiterate that politics is for
everyone. It
is crucial therefore that we all, military and civilians, should sit down and
agree on the meaning and the extent of the belief that the "military should
be involved in politics".
I believe the answer may well be that while the army may not be involved in
partisan politics, its members have the right, like any other citizens, to
active participation in non-partisan politics.
*Gen Saiyud Kerdphol, a former Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces,
is deputy chairman of Pollwatch Foundation.
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