Thai Military Reform: Never the Twain Shall Meet

Recent high-profile controversies involving the Thai military have elicited calls for reform in the institution. The problem is that the concept means different things to different parties.

Current Prime Minister and former army chief General Prayut Chan-ocha who had seized power with a coup d’etat on 22 May 2014 is also thinking of reforms to the military. (Photo: Narong Sangnak, Flickr)

Supalak Ganjanakhundee

12 June 2020

Two high-profile incidents in recent months involving the Thai military have again sparked calls for reform of the venerable institution. The calls are even more pertinent, at a time when the kingdom is in the throes of grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic aftershocks resulting from it.

In February, a sergeant-major shot dead 29 people – including his commanding officer, military peers, police commandoes and civilians – in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima. He sought to shine the spotlight on that the fact that he was cheated in an Army welfare scheme. The event made clear to Thai Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong that something was terribly wrong and that he had to take action for damage control.

A hotline was subsequently opened for troops to blow the whistle about irregularities in their units. Two months later, another sergeant used the hotline to allege that his superior officer had made him fake participation in bogus trips so that he could claim additional allowances. While the Army accepted this complaint as one of 600 cases for investigation, the defiant sergeant went absent without leave (AWOL) rather than face disciplinary measures and prosecution in a military court.

The two cases have hogged the headlines, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Thailand’s political and military elites agreed long ago that there was a need for drastic reforms. However, the country has never reached a consensus around the meaning of the term “reform,” or patirup in Thai.

Indeed, it is a classic case of never the twain shall meet. Civil society envisions reform as the withdrawal of the military from politics and the establishment of civilian control over the armed forces. But the concept of reform among traditional elites and the military is quite different. They want to build up the strength of the military, give it unfettered power, broaden their roles in the government and acquire expensive military kit. To top it off, the elites also want to safeguard their economic interests and ensure the welfare of the troops.

Thailand’s political and military elites agreed long ago that there was a need for drastic reforms. However, the country has never reached a consensus around the meaning of the term “reform,” or patirup in Thai.

A number of proposals for military reform have been made public over the past few months. Opposition politicians are calling for civilian control, transparency, the end of factionalism and clientelism within the armed forces. They also want to see downsizing, the eradication of conscription, a reallocation of the defence budget, revamping military welfare schemes and the development of a defence industry in Thailand. Before it was dissolved, Future Forward Party advanced a concrete proposal for a compact and modernised armed force. This would have entailed reducing the number of troops from the current 330,000 to 170,000, and slashing the size of the general corps (ranks from major general to general) from 1,600 to 400.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 military coup and set up and secured what military-affairs expert Surachart Bamrungsuk has called senathippatai or military-bureaucratic authoritarianism, has an idea for reforms as well. The ex-general told the House of Representatives during a debate in February that the 2017-2026 master plan for military reform aims to make the Thai military more compact and advanced. It also seeks to improve the living standards and quality of life of troops and their families. The Army has already cut back on hardware acquisitions, reducing the number of tanks per battalion from 51 to 44 and of armoured vehicles from 96 to 81, he said. But it remained necessary for the Navy to have submarines, despite the economic downturn that Thailand was now facing, in order to protect Thailand’s maritime interests. Prayut also noted that Thailand would trim troop levels by 50 per cent by 2028.

While Prayut’s reform proposal might materialise if he stays in power, it amounted to changes that would have an insignificant impact on the military status quo or the armed forces’ privileges. As for the opposition’s ideas, they will never be realised – because of the opposition’s weakness and the fact that the military would never allow them to see light of day.

The truth of the matter is this: Thailand has already lost two golden opportunities to reform its military since the establishment of the country’s modern armed forces over a century ago. The first was in 1973, after a student uprising to oust the military regime of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikhachon. The second was in 1992, after protests by the urban middle class toppled General Suchinda Kraprayoon. In each case, military power was briefly curtailed and de-legitimised in the wake of popular outrage following brutal crackdowns on civilian protestors. The two royally-installed administrations that followed the bloody incidents did much to democratise the country, but the reforms then barely touched the military.

Unlike the successful case of reform of Indonesian’s national defence forces after the 1988 Asian financial crisis and the fall of Suharto, radical reform initiatives from inside the barracks never happened in Thailand when the men in green ran out of performance legitimacy after an economic meltdown. While the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis began in Bangkok, the Thai military remained off the hook. It was never pressed to reform by the elected governments of former Army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and his civilian successor Chuan Leekpai.

Moreover, the Thai military elite believes, as Prime Minister Prayut has always said, that it can do better than popular elected civilian politicians by applying military expertise to run the country and its economy, no matter how complicated doing the latter is. While the current Prayut government has taken credit for its performance in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, the coming economic contraction will provide a perfect opportunity for the military-backed Prayut to put this belief to the test.

Supalak Ganjanakhundee is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and formerly editor of The Nation (Bangkok).

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/79

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