Over the past week, fighting between Thailand and Cambodia over the disputed Preah Vihear border temple has left its bloodiest toll in at least a decade. At least seven people have been killed in recent days and dozens of soldiers on both sides wounded, as the Thai and Cambodian militaries trade rifle and artillery fire.
Now, the fact that people are getting killed over a small amount of disputed territory and an (admittedly beautiful) temple does, to many observers, seem absurd. But the conflict also points to a bigger problem: Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva seems to have diminishing control over the Thai military, which is largely responsible for his place in office. On the Thai side, the conflict is being pushed by nationalists linked to the People’s Alliance for Democracy, but the military men taking action along the border often seem to be doing so either without informing Abhisit or informing his office well after the fact.
This is part of a disturbing and growing trend. It’s widely known in Thailand that the military helped broker the coalition government, with Abhisit at the head, bringing down several pro-Thaksin governments that followed Thaksin’s exile. But how much control does Abhisit have now over his armed forces? To take one example, the Thai military budget has roughly doubled in the past five years, yet the army is spending its money on seemingly useless projects like a new division based in the Northeast – a project long pushed by the military’s godfather, Prem Tinsulonanda, but which has relatively little real use today. (After all, the money could easily be used in the south, home to a serious insurgency, or on the border with Burma.)
Abhisit also appeared to have little control over the military’s actions during the violence in Bangkok during last April and May. And Abhisit seems unable to control the security forces’ meddling in, or denying help to, the investigations into the killings in Bangkok last April and May.
Where might this all lead? It’s not hard to imagine, particularly as the question of royal succession becomes more evident and the military increasingly feels it alone can defend the crown. Recently, army chief Prayuth chan-Ocha has been publicly denying that the military plans to stage a coup, as rumors of the possibility swirl in Bangkok. But, remember that only days before the last coup, in 2006, the military was denying it had any such intentions. Don’t bet against it this year either.