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A "Dream Thailand" Public Forum: The Military in Thai Politics: Trends and Prospects (A Book Launch and Panel Discussion) - [Youtube & Summary Report



Institute of Security and Internation Studies cooperate with Friedrich Nauman Stiftung

A "Dream Thailand" Public Forum - The Military in Thai Politics: Trends and Prospects (A book launch and panel discussion)

Tuesday, 3rd April 2018 09.30-11.30
Room 105 Maha Chulalonrkon Building
Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University

Opening Remarks - Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana, Dean of Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Presenter - Dr. Gregory V. Raymond, Research Fellow of Strategic and Defence Studies Center, Australian National University

Discussant - Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn, Principal Advisor to Deputy Prime Minister/Defence Minister, Associate Professor of Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Moderator and Discussant - Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of ISIS Thailand, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University



Summary Report:

Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana

Dean, Faculty of Political Science,

Chulalongkorn University


In recent months, it seems that the ‘election mood’ of Thai politics has been ignited, even though there is still a question over whether a general election will be held next year. However, elections and military coup d'état seem to be synonymous in Thailand. We should now promote a deeper understanding of Thai politics, especially culturally understand the role of the military.


Concerning Dr. Raymond’s study, adding a cultural dimension to politics, including military culture, state ideology and national strategic culture is important. If culture refers to a way of life and informing human action, the interplay between culture and politics is indispensable. Even though approaches towards political culture in the past had some defects because of cultural determinism, cultural analysis in politics is crucial when used appropriately.


In the last decade since the 2006 military coup, the Thai political culture has turned to become non-tolerant – leading to a mob rule political culture. The question is: do we want democratic politics of majority rule with minority rights which peacefully exists under the rule of law, or do we want politics on the street where political actors mobilize mobs to protest for their interests, overthrow their political enemies or create an environment that the military can use as a justification for intervention? Thailand may need a new, what Greg Raymond calls Strategic Culture, to confront the practice of mob rule.


Pro-coup advocates always say ‘one step backwards, two steps forwards.’ The coup as a means takes Thailand one step backwards, but it was required to overcome political problems which take the country two steps forwards. In contrast, anti-coup protests say that the coup is always a bad fruit – a bad means can never generate good ends. Who should we believe? It depends, not just on outputs, but on outcomes that make real impacts to society.


The Thai political elite have a privileged position. Whether they are civilian government under authoritarian populism or an army general under a military regime, elites always have more influence in policymaking and receiving benefits from the system. Top elites are protected from the negative consequences of their questionable behavior, whether they cheat in the stockmarket, borrow watches from dead friends, or borrow exorbitant sums of money from friends who own massage parlours.

Dr. Gregory V. Raymond

Research Fellow

Strategic and Defence Studies Center

Australian National University

Author of Thai Military Power: A Culture of Strategic Accommodation


King Chulalongkorn played a fundamental role in founding the professional Thai military, creating the modern Thai state, managing Thailand’s relations with European colonial powers and establishing an enduring body of thought about how military power could help Thailand. He thought about military force, not as a first line of defence, but as a support to Thailand’s first and preferred tool of foreign policy: diplomacy. This enduring body of thought that Chulalongkorn was so fundamental to can be referred to as a ‘Strategic Culture Narrative.’


King Chulalongkorn himself would likely not have envisaged the Thai military taking the role it does in Thai politics today. When he chose the leadership of the military, he chose his relatives – he wanted the military to remain a tool of government, not part of government. But 22 years after King Chulalongkorn died, the 1932 Revolution changed Thai politics by adopting representative democracy and paving the way for military officers to enter political power.


Military organizational culture – royalism and factionalism – drives Thai military involvement in politics.

It has been 86 years since the 1932 Revolution ended absolute monarchy. The military has governed Thailand for 59 of those years – almost 70% of the time since Thailand became a democracy. The Thai military has mounted or attempted to mount 35 coups resulting in 18 Constitutions. Its involvement in politics is not just in the direct enforced removal of governments, but though other means such as setting up proxy political parties, securing non-elected seats in Parliament, convincing civilian parliamentarians to switch allegiances, issuing warnings to civilian governments, running smear campaigns and acting selectively to control protesters set on disruption.


What drives this involvement in politics? There are broader societal factors, but there are two aspects of the Thai military’s culture which must be looked at. Royalism is the first and obvious factor. Royalism diminishes the Thai military’s sense of allegiance and willingness to accept direction from elected governments. Fervent devotion to the monarchy is not a military phenomenon – it is shared by most, if not all, Thai people – but it is intensely strong in the military and is part of its organizational culture. This culture reflects the Buddhist ontology and the reality of Thailand. The King is at the apex and a system of power relationships flow down. It reflects authority in Thailand is still deeply charismatic in nature and origins, as well as legal and bureaucratic. Baramee (charisma) still trumps gotmai (law) in certain key areas and critical moments. This Buddhist ontology means that in a Thai style democracy, in the Constitutional Monarchy, the ‘Monarchy’ carries more weight than the ‘Constitutional.’


Thai military royalism, as powerful as it is, has been historically contingent and transactional. Royalism has waxed and waned tremendously. It was present when King Chulalongkorn founded the military as a royal bodyguard, but it was absent largely for 25 years after the 1932 Revolution where the role of the Thai monarchy in society diminished with the absence of a ruling monarch and with the decline in the use of royal language.


Royalism returned under King Rama IX, and in particular, after the restoration of the monarchy under Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in 1957. Royalism has intensified in Thailand – it has become hyper-royalism since the 1970s. This is a period in which images of the monarchy saturate public space from billboard pictures to nightly news reports. The Thai military’s royalism has had a transactional side. Royalism is an ideology of a power partnership in which there are elements of quid pro quo by pitting itself as a defender of the monarch and the three-pillar ideology – nation, religions and King – the military legitimates its hold on power. This partnership has changed over time. In the 1950s and 60s, the military was the dominant partner, but in the 1980s the monarchy emerged as the senior partner by demonstrating an ability to without support for coups.


Another driving force for the military’s involvement in politics is factionalism. Factionalism of one type or another has characterized the Thai military since it was established, but especially since 1932. Some forms of factionalism, like the fact that the Thai military exists in “Five Kingdoms” (Army, Navy, Airforce, MoD, and Supreme Command) are compensated for by other forms of factionalism, such as the class group factionalism that exists between the military officers who attended armed force preparatory schools in the same year retain links with each other. Since at least 1953, it could be argued that the class group allegiance Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy has been one of the strongest factions. Some argue that a military officer’s allegiance to his own class can be greater than loyalty to their family. There are also unit-based factions, such as the Queen’s Guard and the Eastern Tigers, which has provided a base for Gen. Prayuth to become army chief and then Prime Minister. Class and unit-based factionalism drive Thai military involvement in politics because they create a cycle of winners and losers. Ascendant factions tend to promote their own members and dump non-members from key positions – coups are often followed by purges of rival and promotions of loyal officers.


Thai military’s involvement in politics and how it has affected its operational military capability.

The Thai military is large, it is well equipped and its soldiers are brave. The Thai military’s performance in operations where it has had responsibilities for planning, command, logistics and coordination, however, has been relatively unimpressive. There is not a huge number of cases to draw on, but when we look at operations such as against Communist forces in Petchabun in the 1970s, against Lao forces in the 1980s, against Vietnamese forces in the 1980s, the Thai military has struggled to perform effectively. Its poor planning and poor combat effectiveness was evident during the 1980s when it confronted the powerful and numerous Vietnamese forces on its doorstep occupying Cambodia not more than 300km from Bangkok. Although it was facing an existential threat, the military did not reform nor change its doctrine, and few additional resources were sent to the east. More money was spent acquiring conventional weapons, but money was also wasted on a token squadron of F-16 aircraft which could not have provided Thailand with an air defence or deterrent strike capability. Thailand largely relied on what it could obtain from its allies, especially the US, and what it could obtain from China.


What is at the root of Thai military effectiveness? Doctrine is a factor that must be considered. Modern militaries increasingly rely on doctrine to guide their training, planning and equipment acquisition. The Thai military has lacked an appropriate doctrine to guide its selection of equipment, its training and development of its command and control systems. It developed a counter-insurgency doctrine during the Cold War which helped defeat the Communist insurgency, but it has remained reliant on imported US doctrine for conventional operations. The Thai military has not been keen to create a joint military doctrine.


Militaries that are largely self-governed tend not to reform or adapt. The tend to remain ‘stove piped’ and uncoordinated. Each service will pursue its own doctrine, equipment and training in isolation from other parts. There is a modus-vivendi on how to share the budget, but from that point on, each part of the military pursues its own vision of what it should be. Thai governments have very rarely sought to change this status quo. The last serious attempt to reform the Thai military took place in the late-1990s under Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who then was dual-hatted as civilian Defense Minister and worked with Thai army commanders to map a reform program that would have seen the reduction in troop levels by 72000 over 12 years. They also proposed changes to the command structure – the Supreme Commander and service chiefs would be put under the authority of the Permanent Secretary. However, the plan never succeeded – troop numbers actually increased and the proposed new command structure was abandoned.


Where is Thailand now, with a presumed return to democracy, and where the military fits in that landscape.  

We are in a period of Thai history where many believed as recently as 2005 that the current type of politics had vanished forever. The events of Black May in 1992 tarnished the reputation of the military severely and ushered in Thailand’s most democratic period in its history – 14 years of democratic government ensued. The most liberal Constitution in Thailand’s history in 1997, but the ascendency of Thai Rak Thai and Thaksin Shinawatra changed Thai politics profoundly by capturing the loyalty of Thailand’s political peasants in the north and northeast with genuinely progressive policies and pursuing new methods of machine politics. He amassed more power than any civilian politician had done before. His use of that power for personal enrichment and to negate the checks and balances of the 1997 Constitution, and to rival the popularity of the Monarch, unleashed opposition from Thailand’s elite and middle classes. Since 2006, Thailand has been a battleground between these class and geographical divides.


Not too much has changed except for the passing of Rama 9 who remained above politics except at moments of crisis. Some argue that Thailand is reflecting the increasing illiberalism of Southeast Asia and the illiberalism that radiates from a rich and powerful China. However, Thai democracy is far more a matter and a reflection of Thais than it is of what external powers do or think.

Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn

Principal Advisor to Deputy Prime Minister/Defence Minister

Associate Professor of Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


In times of disaster, the military always steps up. The military is on top of the bureaucracy, the human trafficking structure, the counter-terrorism and management of the country. We hope that civilian government will be able to replace that. But for now, we need the military.


In terms of political culture, with decades of operations on the ground, supporting the people or helping royal-sponsored projects and the association with the bureaucracy and the monarchy, politics has come naturally to the military. And this is not just in the eyes of the military, this is also in the view of the people and how they perceive the role of the military itself. The involvement of the military in politics or military leaders as political leaders is seamless for the public.


There is a lot of speculation about what the late King thought of the military, but from time to time there has been some speculation that he thought Thailand should move forward from the present culture of coups. That needs to be further researched.