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Wishing General Prayuth good luck

I join with many others in wishing General Prayuth and his military colleagues good luck as they set about reforming Thailand's institutions and political processes, presumably with the objective of establishing a more representative system of governance and a more just society. They will need it in spades because they are almost certain to fail, as history here in Thailand and in the West tells us over and over again.

He and his colleagues are part of an institution - the military - which is ill-equipped to reform civil society. The military is organised around the principle of command and control. Civil society is based upon the principles of consultation, compromise and consensus. By training, experience and mindset, generals make poor civil reformers. History is replete with examples where attempts by the military to organise and manage civil society have ended in spectacular failure. One need only cite the recent histories of Argentina, Chile and Brazil, among many others.

And then there is Thailand's own history. Since the overthrow of absolute monarchy 82 years ago there have been 13 successful coups. As a result, for all but 18 of those years the Army has ruled Thailand. None of General Prayuth's 12 predecessors succeeded in their declared objective to make Thailand more representative and more just.

But generals do not always fail. Four American presidents were generals (Washington, Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower). None tried to refashion American society along military principles. All were re-elected to a second term. And then there was General de Gaulle, who refused to accept power from the hands of the French generals and went on to create France's Fifth Republic.

These five generals were successful because they understood that the military is not the right instrument by which to reform civil society. They embraced the rule of law and the democratic process.

General Prayuth will have to decide which model of generalship will inform his stewardship. Will it be that of Eisenhower and de Gaulle or that of Chile's Pinochet and Argentina's Galtieri? If he chooses the former he just might succeed where his predecessors failed. Good luck, General.

Robert Jacobs

Bangkok


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