In this post, Gregory V. Raymond writes about the latest development of the Thai’s monarchy role in politics, and the shifting relationship between the monarchy, the military, the people and the parliament in Thailand. Gregory is the author of “Thai Military Power: A culture of strategic accommodation”, which you can buy here.
In Thai Military Power, I wrote that change to the Thai monarchy’s role in politics could bring about change to the monarchy’s relationship to the Thai military, and ultimately to the relationship of future elected governments to the Thai armed forces. This is because one of the most striking and profound characteristics of the Thai military’s organisational culture is its royalism, leading it to put loyalty to the monarchy ahead of obedience to elected governments and the constitution. As was put by one of the powerful advocates for a royalist military, former prime minister and president of the Privy Council General Prem Tinsulanonda in 2006, if the military was horse, the monarchy is the owner and the government is only a jockey. Will this model survive?
This year has seen the most significant challenge to Thailand’s hybrid model of sophisticated authoritarianism, and the most direct assault on the place of the monarchy and military in Thai society, since the 1932 revolution. A new generation of young protestors is insisting that the governance of the Thai state, long formally a constitutional monarchy, be reformed to recognise once and for all “that this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch”. The students and their allies want the monarchy to genuinely be above politics and below the constitution. The strength, length and breadth of the protests, which started in January and which have continued to take place across the entire country, are forcing the government to take the idea of not only constitutional reform seriously, but even the notion of monarchical reform.
Thailand therefore appears to stand at the cusp of significant change to its democracy, although where it is heading remains unclear. The democracy movement could be crushed in a Tiananmen Square type event, lurch forward in a Berlin Wall collapse-style rush, or move incrementally towards a new balance. After all, as King Vajiralongkorn told a foreign journalist in October in a moment of historically unprecedented informality and spontaneity, “Thailand is the land of compromise.” If substantive change does occur, this will have potentially profound implications for Thailand’s civil-military relations.
The ascent of Rama X Vajiralongkorn in 2016 has been critical to the rise of the student movement, though to be sure, other triggers, such as the continuance of coup-maker General Prayuth Chan-ocha in power after the March 2019 elections, a constitution which allowed the appointment of 250 unelected senators, and the dissolution of the popular Future Forward Party have also played a part. The new monarch has been remote, living largely in Germany, but also, in the view of many protestors, lacking in respect for democratic principles. For example, the monarch changed the 2017 constitution unilaterally after its approval by referendum. Some have also been concerned about the symbolism of the disappearance of the People’s Party Plaque, originally laid in 1936 to commemorate Thailand’s abolition of the absolute monarchy and the establishment of its first constitution. The plaque disappeared in 2017, shortly after the instalment of Vajiralongkorn as king. The disappearance of the plaque was part of a pattern of vanishing monuments related to the 1932 revolution. No public statement was made about the disappearance of the plaque and no individual or agency took responsibility.
Even if momentum for democracy stalls, the accession of Rama X has already brought significant change to the monarchy-military nexus, some of which has disturbed both the military and democracy movement. The new monarch is personalising control of the military, advantaged by his own professional background as a soldier, including his own network of trusted aides and his significant knowledge of the inner workings of military organisations. This year’s military reshuffle for example, saw the surprise appointment of a new airforce chief, who had served as a defence attaché in Germany, leapfrogging over more senior contenders.
King Vajiralongkorn has also transformed the palace guard into a new military entity, the Royal Security Command (nuai banchakan thawai khwam plot phai raksa phraong). The conversion of the palace guard began in 2013, while Vajiralongkorn was still Crown Prince. The Royal Security Command is large and clearly more than a mere household security detail, such as might be provided for a Western leader’s personal protection. Comprising six battalions, each of between 300 to 800 soldiers, the Royal Security Command is a force of several thousand soldiers. Personnel are recruited directly from the population, and given opportunities to undertake specialist training such as parachuting and ranger training, such as might be provided to commandos or special forces. The RSC is effectively a private army answering directly to the king. It has also been growing at the expense of the mainstream army, with the transfer the 1st and 11th regiments of the army’s 1st Division to the RSC in 2019.
We know little about how these changes have been viewed within the military, but there are reports of a rift between senior airforce officers in the Thai airforce as a consequence of this year’s leadership appointment.
In summary, there is considerable fluidity in Thailand’s political landscape at present, and the possibility of a critical juncture in which the relationship between the monarchy, the military, the people and the parliament shifts fundamentally is more possible now than at any time in decades. Should this occur, the effects on Thai military power, in terms of its political role and its military capability, could be profound.