English | Thai  

NOV 2007 - FEB 2008

General Saiyud Kerdphol

Former Supreme Commander Chairman, People’s Network for Free & Fair Elections in Thailand
A lecture given in Kathmandu, Nepal (November 2007)

by General Saiyud Kerdphol
It is my honour and privilege to speak to you today on a subject that is close to my heart and relevant to all of our countries – that is the role of the military in ensuring free and fair elections. In any democratic society, it is good to engage in a thoughtful debate on such a topic. My only fear is that any conclusions we may draw may end up giving the misleading impression that the military is the sole cause of our troubles. I believe that the reality suggests otherwise. The military has its role but like most other sectors of society, in young democracies such as Thailand’s, civil society often teams up with and relies on the military to build up a responsible government.

Does the military have any role to play either in democracy or most importantly in a transition to democracy? One short answer might be: the military should have no role whatsoever, and as such must in all cases keep out of politics. I would prefer to focus on this issue from a slightly different angle: the military can and ought to play a constructive role by joining with other sectors of society working towards ensuring that this country continues to have free and fair elections. In all fairness, the relationship between the military and civilian politics is that of chicken and egg.

My personal belief is that while the military is trained for the protection of the country and its moral ideas and security – it is equally a duty of the military to co-operate with the rest of the 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. I certainly hope that what I will say may contribute positively to the process currently underway in your own country.

As some of you may know, I have spent most of time following my retirement working towards ensuring free and fair elections. I will therefore focus my observations on the role of the military in ensuring free and fair elections which may very well serve as the basis for a blueprint in this regard. Before I do that, I would like to take this opportunity to mention that I am honoured to have been invited to lead the observer mission organized by the Asian Network for Free and Fair Elections (ANFREL). ANFREL was born of a coalition of ASEAN NGOs including some of your own.

The Thai Experience

The situation in Thailand during my time is very different from, if not unimaginable in today' s Thailand. Two factors characterized our society in those days. The country was governed by a strongman military dictator on the one hand, and was faced with a communist insurgency from 1965 to 1985 on the other. 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 and a foreign state model for organizing our society.

Two sad reminders stand out from those days: the massacre of students protesting against the regime in 1972 and 1974, and the consequent flight of many to the jungle as a result of those massacres. The dissatisfied intellectual élite found a ready following in rural villagers who lived lives of unremitting poverty. Meanwhile, His Majesty the King took the unusual step of appointing an interim Prime Minister who led an unstable government – once again, a military coup followed by a government led by "new" military figures. The serious deterioration of the situation in the countryside at the time triggered my serious interest in democracy and popular participation. As a young 43-year-old officer in 1965, I was assigned to plan and organize the counter-insurgency measures in Thailand. This turned out to be a profound experience, which has had a long-lasting influence on my life.

Though the military solution has been the usual response to power struggles within the political élite since 1960, 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 had actually contributed to the popularity of the insurgency to the extent of enabling it to launch its armed struggle.

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 poorly informed, believed 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 campaign aimed at convincing rural as well as urban people that the government was more patriotic 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 to improve the quality of rural life; and would also require restoration of law and order with the necessary (and only the necessary) military action. This realization presented Thailand with the then unique possibility of co-operation amongst the civilian population, the police and the military (CPM). The military was thus instrumental in developing the country's infrastructure, including improving access to markets, utilities, and education. At the same time, various Royal Projects furthered a new and more temperate climate. One example is the provision of the necessary needs 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.

Therefore, the military had a major role to play in bring an end to the insurrection and created a suitable climate for holding elections to form a new government. But the military was not involved in conducting these elections. The lesson of this story is that it is possible for the army to cooperate with the rest of the society to achieve democracy. Unfortunately, we must acknowledge that the Thai military felt too comfortable to return to their barracks. I say this despite the last coup attempt in 1992, which I hoped and believed to be the last time. But I was wrong, for the latest coup took place yet again on 19 September 2006.

In Thailand, we have had our share of "guided democracy", where a political party is mainly supported by the military. 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 are neither free, fair, nor credible. 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 held at these times are simply fraudulent. People elected this way will certainly try to pay back or recuperate their campaign expenses. Once anyone goes that way, the rest of the story is all too familiar. With the danger of this turning into a vicious circle, it is never too late to set our countries on the right path. It is never too late to try.

Though this may sound like a cliché for some, I truly believe there is a solution for every problem. I keep reminding myself of this all the time. If the problem lies in a 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. This was my reading of our own situation in Thailand. As you know, I was once an army officer, but I now dedicate my life to ensuring free and fair elections. So how is this relevant to your situation here in Nepal?

The Nepalese Connection

Thailand shares with Nepal a serious economic situation as well as the threat of imminent violence. There is no doubt that economic deterioration and poverty can lead to violence if we ignore some of our people's most pressing claims. Your military seemed to have understood this fact and has rightly given itself the more appropriate role of assisting various organs within civil and political society in attempting to satisfy the needs of the populace.

Another important lesson we have learned from our experience in Thailand is the ability of the professional army, of both regulars and conscripts, to acquire skills ranging from literacy, leadership, management and a wide-ranging vocational education. The military can be a source of economic activities that will ultimately lead to improving living standards. The military in my 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 useful to people after they leave the military. For example, the majority of soldiers, who are normally from poor rural areas, have been entrusted leadership roles of one kind or another within their communities. This fact can certainly be used to affect positive change and democratization.

The present generation of Thai military leadership was once young soldiers and officers who participated in the counter-insurgency, but quickly developed a strong sense of support for democracy, which continues to this day. I have no doubt that this will also be true in the case of your military, 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 on democracy, politics and the military.

Democracy, politics and the military: a personal perspective

Based on my own experience and personal convictions, I have dedicated my retirement to advocating democracy and free elections as my own modest contribution to the well being of Thailand, and for His Majesty the King. The notions of discipline, leadership, dedication and responsibility instilled in me by the military have all helped prepare me for such a quest, and I think the same notions and aspirations could contribute to your nation's political and economic stability. I believe that you have all the necessary capacities and qualities that will best complement those of the civilian sector and mindset.

Rather than join a political party or organization as some of my colleagues did, in 1985 I founded a neutral group dedicated to democratic development and free elections. I felt that that for someone in my position, joining a political party would not have contributed to solving some of the pressing political problems we faced. Instead, I believed then, as I believe now, that joining politics would have set a bad example, and could have complicated our political problems rather than solving them.

In Thai, my group is called ASA PRACHA MUTTI, the People's Mandate. The group changed its name to Ongkorn Klang, or Poll Watch, and we are now known as PNET-the People's Network for Free and Fair Elections in Thailand. Our work focuses on election monitoring, which started with the Thai elections of 1986 and has continued ever since. Our work today is still evolving and growing, and covers various aspects of democratization as well as election monitoring. We believe that there is infinite opportunity for our people to participate and not just give their views but also have them count.

I believe that in my case, I owe it to my military training and background, my ability to mobilize and organize a nation-wide "army" of volunteers to monitor elections. I am the living proof that life after the military can also be one of leadership and service. I think that there is a need for such perspective worldwide, but most importantly in our region. It would contribute greatly to freeing our societies from sectarianism, ethnic division and violence.

Is politics for everyone?

"Man is a political animal", so goes an old but all too familiar saying. People have always possessed two essential skills: how to live together and how to find their food and try to improve their living conditions. While the first is the political way, the second can be called the economic. These are the ying and the yang of our collective life. The political and the economic systems 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 every one, both military and civilian, and must not be left to the professional politicians.

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. Needless to say however, each has its own dynamics and responsibilities. To better understand what I am getting at here, let us categorize partisan politics as the one for politicians, while non-partisan politics is the one for all of us - military and civilians alike.

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 motivated by profit or self-advancement. They are guided by their personal 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 civic 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 eradicate injustice, poverty and corruption. The overall goal is to work towards a just and orderly society, where justice prevails and people enjoy a decent standard of living. Achieving this goal will remain an impossible dream unless community leaders, professionals, NGOs, concerned citizens and the army can all join hands in these important and voluntary endeavours.

The "silent majority" can ultimately bring about the establishment of new and higher standards of values and responsibilities among 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 our lives. It 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 civilian, should sit down and agree on the meaning and the extent of the belief that the "military should not be involved in politics". 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 seek active participation in non-partisan politics.


I hope that you will find some encouraging signs from our experience in Thailand, where the military teamed up with civilians first to counter the insurgency and then to pave the way for democracy to take its course. I also hope that you find some clues to the solutions to your own problems. In order to effectively do so, there must be a distinction between partisan and non-partisan politics. I believe that once this distinction is properly understood and duly accepted, there will be ample opportunity for the military to play a constructive role in ensuring that elections are free and fair. I sincerely believe that the coming elections present this country with the real possibility of co-operation between the military and all other segments of the society to achieve such a noble goal.

I have tried to share with you some of our experiences in Thailand, which date back to the insurgency. While I was once a commander of our army in times of great turmoil, I am now spending most of my time observing elections and to ensuring that they are free and fair. In the pursuit of noble goals, every thing is possible. •