Since the 1932 revolution overthrew Thailand’s absolute monarchy, the Thai military has been as much a political actor as an instrument of policy. But this has come at the price of its capacity to accept direction, develop a defence doctrine capable of disciplining procurement, and generate and execute effective joint operational plans, writes Greg Raymond.
As Thailand’s latest junta approaches its apparent denouement after four years, discussion is once again turning to the role the Thai military will play in post-election politics. This focus tends to overlook the military’s external security role, as well as the impact of its political involvement on this responsibility. While the Thai military has played a significant role in the country’s external security, its domestic political involvement has curbed its capacity to defend the country.
This year, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of the Thai military’s deployment to France during World War I to support the Allied powers. The force of 1,100 arrived in July 1918 and some nineteen had lost their lives by November when the Armistice was signed (although none died through combat). The Thai soldiers marched in victory parades in Paris and two received the Croix de Guerre. In subsequent years, Thailand used the deployment to press its case for the removal of unequal treaties with Western nations.
The Thai military’s overseas success, together with an enduring elite strategic culture that places a premium on diplomacy as the first line of defence, shaped a subsequent pattern of decision-making. Thailand’s political elites forged a path where the Thai military was often used to extract security benefits from major power partners – rather than the military itself acting as the primary bulwark of Thailand’s external security. This was demonstrated in later deployments to the Korean and Vietnam wars alongside US forces, and in cooperation from the 1980s onwards with Chinese forces in supporting the Khmer Rouge’s resistance to Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia.
This elite culture which emphasises diplomacy emerged during the critical state-building reign of Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), and it has arguably influenced a tendency to underbalance against external threats. An actor who underbalances chooses to respond to increases in external threat with less effort or resourcing than they are capable. For example, in the 1980s, Thailand chose not to spend enough on external defence to defeat a Vietnamese invasion. This was in spite of the presence of 160,000 Vietnamese troops less than 300 kilometres from Bangkok during Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia.
Thailand’s underbalancing also arises from a relative lack of return on investment from its military’s operational capability. Weaknesses in the Thai military’s doctrine and command have meant that their forces have not performed as effectively as they might in conventional combat, given their first-rate arms. The Thai military has come off second-best in conflicts it could have been expected to win, such as the border conflict with Laos in 1987–88. It has been difficult for the Thai military to address these issues and undertake any serious reform because of its resistance to central government direction.
Since the 1932 revolution overthrew Thailand’s absolute monarchy, the Thai military has been as much a political actor as an instrument of policy. Its organisational culture of factionalism, army dominance and royalism have repeatedly propelled it towards coups, as well as other subtler interventions in politics. This has come at the price of its capacity to accept direction, develop a defence doctrine capable of disciplining procurement, and generate and execute effective joint operational plans.
The last serious effort at military reform was undertaken following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis by the Democrat government led by Chuan Leekpai in partnership with then Army commander Surayud Chulanont. But it failed to move the Thai military to a smaller and more agile force structure.
Another outcome has been a privileging of Thailand’s land forces at the expense of its maritime forces. It has been very difficult for Thai governments to dictate the allocation of Thai defence spending. A similar pattern can be seen in other Southeast Asian militaries including those of Myanmar and Indonesia. Governments are kept at an arm’s length from issues of military reform and the entrenched interests of the land forces are not challenged.
Armies are reluctant to see funding redistributed to their maritime colleagues, and underinvestment in navies is the result. As China becomes more assertive in the South China Sea and elsewhere, this could limit the ability of these countries to make a contribution to regional maritime security.
The Thai state has accommodated the military’s resistance to reform due to its successful strategy of employing the military to support its primarily diplomatic security strategy. It continues to display a culture of strategic accommodation in adapting externally to changing power balances, but also in coping with the realities of the Thai military’s position as a political actor – and the consequences for military operational capability.
Greg Raymond is a research fellow in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum and can be read at https://bit.ly/2Ew1rys