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‘What’s The Point of Having a Military?’ Revisited: Security Sector Deform in Thailand

Renowned Thai academic and social commentator Nidhi Eoseewong’s column titled What’s the point of having a military?, originally in Thai on Matichon Online, stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest of interest in both the Thai mainstream and English alternative media. The role of the Thai military was also recently analysed by veteran academic Paul Chambers in a Peace Research Institute Frankfurt report, Civil-Military Relations in Thailand since the 2014 coup: The Tragedy of Security Sector “Deform”, ‘deform’ being a technical term for the opposite of reform. This column attempts to briefly summarize the first two sections of Chamber’s 45-page report, with some additional remarks.

Chambers’ main point is that military reform is a given in the West. As part of presumed universalist values, a civilian state is the ideal model, thus the Thai military’s prioritization of “regime security, longevity, and extension of military power" are a vernacularized Thai version of this ideal. In the ideal model, civil-military relations, including through the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, are structured in a way where the power to make political decisions rests with the civilian actors. For example, if a civilian organization in the US wanted to export a technology that could be used for both energy and weapons (such as nuclear fission or fusion), there would be a careful negotiation along the spectrum of authority and power between military and civilian participants, which would be followed by an arms-length review procedure by the Department of State but which would ultimately rest with the leading civilian in the executive, i.e., the President.

As Chambers points out, in the West, a civilian body oversees the military and typically

“…seeks to advance the streamlining, demobilization and downsizing of security forces; improving their efficiency; enhancing professionalism; strengthening elected civilian control; increasing transparency; reducing corruption; improving the justice sector; monitoring non-state security providers; diminishing human rights abuses; and enacting legislation toward these objectives...”

This has been described by the OECD as a “human security agenda”.

In Thailand, on the other hand, military rule has historically been, and still is, absolute. At the same time, through its power of diktat through Section 44, the Thai military claims to be implementing Security Sector Reform (SSR). Chambers identifies five obstacles preventing fundamental SSR in the case of the Thai military:

  1. The Malay-Muslim insurgency in the Deep South.

  2. Boundary disputes with Cambodia.

  3. The political divide due to Thaksin Shinawatra.

  4. The monarchical succession.

  5. The personality, personal motivations, and self-beliefs of senior Thai military regarding their expertise in managing the country.

While Chambers is correct here, the near total grip in which Thailand is held by the Thai military may, however, be weakening.

The first two reasons have become political theatre under the Thai military. Thais are wearying of the eternal standoff in the Deep South given that obvious ways to weaken the militants exist, including a national language policy which would permit the studying of Thai Malay, alongside Thai, in dual language programs in schools in the Deep South. Secondly, boundary disputes with Cambodia can also only be manufactured for a certain amount of time before the political theatre becomes transparent.

Thirdly, that there is a clear political divide in the country is a given, but very few Thais, especially those in the North and Northeast, believe any genuine reconciliation has taken place. No political concessions have been made regarding elected governors or decentralization; in fact, the exact opposite has been imposed. With an entire generation now knowing what local democracy and representation is, the political divide is seen as a product of the Thai military, not as something to be reduced by it. Further, the monarchical succession is again not seen by the bulk of the North and Northeast as particularly contentious. For many Thais, inheritance through the male of the line is practically pre-destined - anything else would be unimaginable, especially given Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws.

This only leaves the personality, motivations, and self-beliefs of senior Thai military individuals. Within senior male Thais, there is indeed a ‘Big Man’ effect – identified in academic research as high ‘social dominance orientation’. While individuals with high social dominance orientation may be gifted leaders capable of rallying right-wing authoritarianism, they are also, ultimately, not particularly attractive individuals. As I pointed out in a previous column, research in the field of psychology suggests “they like to wield power and intimidate, and they do this because they tend to be ruthless and do not believe everyone is equal, instead being prejudiced against subordinate or disadvantaged groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals.” While General Prayut at first behaved somewhat as a statesman, he has subsequently ‘deformed’ himself, likely due to stress.

Chamber's report looks at seven dimensions of SSR in Thailand, namely the actors, civil-military relations before May 2014, the military's maintenance of its regime since 2014, security sector reform prior to the coup, the state of SSR since the coup, the efforts of actors working with the regime, and the prospects for civil-military relations. Chambers notes that the core of the Royal Thai security sector is the Army, which together with the Navy, the Air Force, the police, and three paramilitary wings, namely the Rangers, the Border Patrol and the Volunteers, totals 551,000 people or 0.8% of the population, higher than Indonesia but smaller than Vietnam.

All of these organizations have tainted reputations due to lack of transparency, corruption, inefficiency, and lack of civilian oversight. In the case of the military, this is a point even conceded by General Prem, himself. One problem is perhaps that the armed forces were charged in the 2007 constitution with protecting democracy, thus there is a built-in clash of interests despite the fact that the Prime Minister is supposedly in charge of Internal Security Operations Command, the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Agency, and the Royal Thai Police. The Prime Minister also indirectly oversees the Defence Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice, and the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Council. Thus, in the case of a military removal of the Prime Minister, the cabinet, and the political party, there is no civilian body to which the security forces are answerable.

This strongly contrasts with more stable democracies. If the US President went insane and tried to nuke the UK, a military intervention would install in his place the Vice President. If both were found to be conspiring in secret with China as 'Manchurian Candidates' to realign with China instead of NATO, any military intervention would lead to the Speaker of the House taking over, and so on down, with the Supreme Court and the Constitution providing additional underpinnings for democracy. This alternative to military coups is not yet in place in Thailand. What is needed in the next People's Constitution, which must have a relatively straightforward amendment process, is a stronger House Speaker role, a role for the Supreme Court in arbitrating political disputes, and enhanced roles for the parliamentary military standing committees.

Chambers notes no court has ever ruled against the military in Thailand, and precious few cases in military courts have ever resulted in soldiers facing jail time. As an aside, this is despite a history of massacres, torture, disappearances, and intimidation involving the military, many of which have occurred in the Deep South and ethnic minority areas, such as the Western border and the Northeast. Chambers points out that even investigations backed by the Department of Special Investigations, under the Ministry of Justice, and the National Human Rights Commission, have gone nowhere.

This means one of the first roles of Thailand's first civilian government after the 2016 referendum must be to secure enough convictions of security personnel, together with amnesties where appropriate and fruitful for investigations, to ensure neither the police nor the military operates with complete impunity and is aware that civilian oversight actually exists, i.e., a parallel military deep state must be avoided at all costs. This must also involve the removal of all military personnel from state owned enterprises which have no relationship with the military. Given the fact that Chambers is correct that potential civil society oversight, such as the Thai Journalists' Association, operates in fear in the post-coup climate, reducing the role of the security forces at all levels, while professionalizing them, is the only way to give civil society a role without facing threats even under a democracy.

Chambers points out that civil society does have a ten-point plan for SSR:

  1. Restoring civil rule in a democratic system.
  2. Decreasing the number of undeployed troops, shifting the size of the military to a country not currently at war (Thailand has 1,400 generals compared to less than 1,000 in the US).
  3. Abolishing of the mandatory conscription in favor of voluntary service.
  4. Decreasing the military budget in favor of funding “national stability,” such as welfare.
  5. Relocating the military camps from Bangkok and the surrounding metropolitan area to the borders.
  6. Opening up the military’s golf courses and horse racing tracks for public use.
  7. Reforming the process of buying munitions, so purchase choices are backed up by military strategy.
  8. Decreasing the amount of tasks assigned to military that overlap with other officials (the MOD teaches farmers how to farm, which in the form of turning swords into ploughshares should perhaps instead be applied to the military).
  9. Refraining from politics.
  10. Dissolving the Supreme Command Headquarters.

Ultimately, following the August 7 referendum, a civilian government must emerge which can implement these and other reforms mentioned above. This means cutting a deal with military personnel who understand that Thai military governments tend towards totalitarianism and cannot be accepted by the West in the 21st century. In fact, the present military government is severely limiting Foreign Direct Investment relative to Thailand’s competitors and its totalitarian nature may ultimately lead to a program of Western sanctions, beginning with symbolic ones (such as restricted Foreign Military Assistance, already in place) and personal sanctions, for example against Generals Prayut and Prawit should they refuse to accept the results of the August 7 referendum. Such sanctions would severely limit the overseas commercial interests of senior military officials and would also impact their families, for example children attending foreign universities. The inconvenience and loss of face involved could not be replaced by Chinese inducements to stay the course of totalitarianism, such as holidays in Beijing – nor would any sane military general want a stake in a commercial venture in Russia or China.

Should senior military officials who may have a tendency to favour civilian rule, such as Generals Prem, Surayud, Sukampol, and Niphat, be willing to cut a deal, the question must be what sort of political parties they would best be in a position to realistically dialogue with. On the one hand, Pheu Thai can be ruled out due to its tendency towards democratic socialism, as can the Commoners’ Party, which is a radical social democrat party supported by some of the Dao Din students. There is no point doing a deal with the Democrat Party as the military already represents at least part of the spectrum of Democrat Party interests. And, if the military is in any way sincere about reforming the socio-political scene, there can be no trading with the traditional family-based political clans, such as the friends of Newin clique and the Silpa-Archas.

Remarkably, this leaves the mainstream student movement, i.e., the New Democracy Movement, composed mainly of the Thammasat Students for a Social Democracy, a group still in its infancy but quite able, in the right circumstances, to implement an exponential growth model due to a certain level of faddism in Thai society. If a genuine student-supported Social Democrat Party with a mass appeal can emerge, it will be one that can lay claim to a philosophy and ideology with over a century of history as well as sophisticated policy suites and a network of supportive institutes and parties spanning every inhabited continent.

Moreover, while social democrat parties are on the left of the spectrum, they are committed to coalition-building and compromise provided their core value sets are protected. Indeed, there are already indications elements of the Thai military and wider establishment are already considering this option, as the only alternative, engagement with provincial machine politics, would make them appear hypocritical given their attempts in the last two draft constitutions to encourage smaller, principled, parties.

These are, after all, Special Circumstances.


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