Soldiers marching at the Oath-Taking Ceremony on the occasion of the Coronation Ceremony in 2019 and Royal Thai Armed Forces Day. Image from the Public Relations Committee for the Coronation of King Rama X

The King’s Soldiers: when monarchism undermines democratisation

A talk with Thep Boontanondha, author of “The King’s Soldiers and the Fostering of Faith and Loyalty” in an attempt to see how the Thai armed forces have been imbued with monarchism. As the influence of the monarchy ebbs and flows, the practice lives on, affecting the political landscape even after the fall of the absolute monarchy.

  • Kings in the past were regularly challenged by the military at times when nobles were able to conscript troops, reflecting the instability of the throne which was liable to be overthrown at any time.
  • King Rama V’s military reform to make the monarch the only person to have an armed force was an important point in creating serving officers who were loyal to the king. Many traditions to create a royalist consciousness were taken from the west and applied to the Thai context, from the structural to the ceremonial.
  • Loyalty to the king is a difficult thing to measure, since it depends on the individual and the power of each king’s prestige. The 1912 Palace Revolt and the change to a democratic form of government in 1932 are reflections of different views toward the monarchy.
  • After the 1932 revolution, the king’s role in the army was reduced, but there still existed young shoots of royalism and conservatism which would come back with a greater role during the Cold War.

The secure relationship between the monarchy and the Thai military is one of the common understandings in this country and can be seen in slogans in military camps, the military’s role in royal ceremonies and providing security, to the annual budget where the military is allocated a budget every year to spend in missions related to the monarchy. 

Putting aside the obvious, a more difficult question is, why did this secure relationship arise? When did it arise, how did it arise, and what are the things we should be concerned about in the socio-political context we are currently living in?

The King’s Soldiers and the Fostering of Faith and Loyalty (ทหารของพระราชา กับการสร้างสำนึกแห่งศรัทธาและภักดี), a book written by Thep Boontanondha and published in March 2022, and adapted from his doctorate dissertation when he was studying at Waseda University, Japan, presents findings that answer these difficult questions for the public. While the printing press is still warm, Prachatai talks to Thep about the origin, decline, and return of the Thai way of being “the King’s Soldiers.”

The beginnings of the King’s Soldiers

“This work started from studying the process of creating a modern army. Once the modern army was created, western knowledge was brought in. Apart from strategy, military methods, battle formations, weapons and munitions, one thing that came together with the modern army that was imported from the west were military rituals and traditions.”

Thep answers questions related to the period of 1868 to 1957, an era starting when King Rama V began reform of the army by creating a national standing army, through the revolution in 1932 which was followed by a reduction in the king’s role and authority in the army, then to Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s return to power after the 1947 coup, when the power bases of Phin Choonhavan and Sarit Thanarat during the Cold War allowed the Thai King to revive his role in the army to fight against communism. The rituals or concepts of loyalty to the King after 1947 are similar, differing only in terms of scope and number.

The basic idea behind creating the King’s Soldiers can be traced back to the relationship between the military, the nobility and the king in the Ayutthaya era (1351-1767) until the military reforms of Rama V. Thep relates that when nobles and the king had their personal armed forces from conscripting commoners, the existence of the king and the succession to the throne was always tense. 

Traces of the king’s efforts to foil attempts to seize the throne can be seen in customary laws which prohibited nobles from meeting in secret and specified penalties up to death for activities beyond the law, or if any noble did not attend the royal oath-taking ceremony, this was an offence carrying the death penalty for the entire family..

“Think of conditions in the time of Ayutthaya when coups occurred very often. Especially during the early Rattanakosin era, from King Rama I to King Rama V, no succession was carried out smoothly. There always had to be a prior incident. King Rama I seized the throne from King Taksin. After King Rama II succeeded to the throne there was the rebellion by Prince Kasatra (Chao Fa Men). In the reign of King Rama III there was the Krommaluang Rak Ronnaret rebellion before King Rama IV ascended the throne. During the succession of King Rama V, there was the issue of Somdet Chaophraya Borom Maha Sri Suriwongse being the person to choose by himself who will become king. We can see that the former military administrative system created challenges to the king all the time, since everyone could have their own soldiers.”

Attempts to use force to seize power were almost normal when changing reigns, especially at times when the king was weak and did not have the support of nobles with strong forces. In Thep’s book, there are mentions of attempts to seize power from King Rama I by Somdet Phra Bawornrajchao Maha Sura Singhanat, the Front Palace (heir to the crown). Although throughout King Rama I’s reign there were no large conflicts, before Maha Sura Singhanat passed away, he encouraged his heir to seize power from King Rama I. 

During King Rama II’s reign, there were attempts to seize power by Prince Kasatra (Chao Fa Men) and by descendants of King Taksin. Both ended in failure and the instigators were executed. This shows that the power of the king could at all times be challenged by the power belonging to other nobles.

This continued until King Rama V, who ascended to the throne with the support of Somdet Phra Bawornrajchao Maha Sri Suriwongse, an important member of the Bunnag family. There were tensions between military forces with Phra Ong Chao Yodyingyot who was the Front Palace, also through the support of Somdet Phra Bawornrajchao Maha Sri Suriwongse. Conflicts occurred after King Rama V tried to centralise power which impacted other nobles as regards tax collection. This tension caused King Rama V to slow down the reforms, before starting to reform the army, by centralising military power to himself in 1887 or 2 years after Phra Ong Chao Yodyingyot passed away. 

Adapting ‘Soldiers of the King’ from the west

Thep says that King Rama V’s military administration reforms included the principle of not allowing nobles to have their personal military forces, restricting the authority to have an armed force to the king alone, under commanders who the king trusted. In practice, King Rama V went forward with his policy to abolish slavery and finished with the 1905 Military Conscription Act. In principle, it identifies the necessity for training in modern warfare and points out that the system of conscripting commoners for war was inappropriate for the times. 

The Act specifies that 18-year-old able-bodied males must be conscripted for military service for a period of 2 years, after which they must serve as Level 1 reserves for another 5 years, then as Level 2 reserves for another 10 years, when their official duties were considered fulfilled. They were compensated with a salary, equipment and a tax exemption. Those who are released after being Level 2 reserves were exempt from taxes for life. 

Elephants carrying artillery of conscripts from Phitsanulok en route to subjugate Yellow Flag Haw at Luang Prabang for the first time in 1875. Image from Wikipedia

Military conscription brought civilians into the modern government system. And bringing them into the government system was also an opportunity to instil a feeling of loyalty toward the king as the one owner of an armed force. Thep relates that during periods when there was no war, the King demonstrated his military role. Kings from Rama V onwards created their military role through rituals and seeking opportunities to interact with soldiers. 

The form of these rituals and practices was taken from western countries which the sons of the nobility had seen, such as England, Germany, Denmark and Russia, countries where at that time the king had a role in the army and politics as one part of building soldiers of the King.

Thep gives an example of the selection culture in the royal military academy, an educational institution for future commanders established in 1887. The academy later became a place for kings to have a relationship with all the soldiers. One of the historical clues that may indicate the concept of creating soldiers loyal to the King is the regulation which enables the children of high-ranking nobility to enter the academy without needing to take the entrance examination that was compulsory for commoners to be selected, due to the belief that nobility will be more loyal to the king than commoners.

“The state of the Thai elite was that when they saw something, they wanted to adapt it to Thai society, especially in the military. One important issue was the founding of the Royal Military Academy. At first, before Chakrabongse Bhuvanath, Prince of Bishnulok, became Commander of the Academy, there were no real limits on who had the right to study there. But during his command, the Academy started to specify which families could enter.

“Actually, this [concept] was taken from Russia. Russia also specified the families who could enter their military academy without an examination. This is an influence brought in by noble children who had gone to study overseas.”

In the days when the King no longer needed to lead the army into battle, displays which demonstrated the status of Soldiers of the King and the King of the Soldiers can be seen through various royal activities, whether visiting soldiers, paying attention to them, or observing their training. 

This kind of relationship with the army became necessary for the king due to the security of the throne. Even King Rama VI who had quarrels with some military officers when he was Crown Prince still regularly went to watch the army’s training – and not just on one-day visits, but overnight stays. In addition, in the letters he wrote after training for the participating soldiers you see the term “my soldiers” all the time. 

Thep said that the rituals were to impress on the soldiers the recognition of the king as their supreme commander, and that they should think of the king’s kindness in their being able to receive a salary or various opportunities, especially among officer cadets, in which the monarchy had more interest than in non-commissioned officers. There were many rituals targeted towards officer cadets, such as the graduation ceremony which in the reign of King Rama V was called an annual festival. Later, this ceremony in the reign of King Rama VII was called the Royal Sword Presentation Ceremony.  

In the last Royal Sword Presentation Ceremony before the change in the system of government in 1932, King Rama VII, who had inklings of rumours of a coup, still gave guidance to cadets in the ceremony on 24 March 1931, stressing to the military not to dabble in politics because whenever they dabble in politics, it will create disorder like in China at that time.

“…that’s why the important duty of a soldier is to provide safety to the nation and the people. If our soldiers were to behave in the way of another profession and outside their own profession, that is wrong. If we were to behave as if we were in business, thinking only of increasing our income, then that undoubtedly cannot be done. It is wrong to our one true profession. Or another issue, we will get lost in thinking about political plans and the like. That is the duty of civilians. That is also wrong. Whichever the nation, they consider that regular soldiers have no duty to think or talk about politics. If soldiers meddle in politics, the results would undoubtedly be negative. For example, in China, different warlords gather soldiers into factions, fighting each other with no end in sight. That is why this is an important point. Soldiers must not be involved in politics. The duty of a soldier is to preserve peace…”

(Taken from the speech made at the Royal Sword Presentation Ceremony for military cadets on 24 March 1931)

“In King Rama V’s reign, the annual festival was held in both the morning and evening, that is, the ceremony took a very long time. In the morning was an official ceremony where certificates were given out. In the evening was a gala dinner, a party to congratulate the soldiers. This ceremony continued in King Rama VI’s reign. Since he had conflicts with the Army, he would attend sometimes, and sometimes not, sending a representative instead. 

“But in King Rama VII’s reign, the ceremony was changed to the Royal Sword Presentation Ceremony because the budget was less, and there were economic problems. We can see that King Rama VII attended the ceremony every time, and every time would make a speech that clearly emphasised that the soldiers are soldiers with the duty to protect the nation and monarchy.”

The Royal Sword Presentation Ceremony has continued up to today. In King Rama IX’s reign, although he no longer attended commencement ceremonies in civilian universities to bestow diplomas, he still presented swords to military students up to when his health deteriorated near the end of his reign.

Loyalty: difficult to grasp, but deeply pervasive

Displaying unity is not limited to what one needs to do, but also includes choosing what not to do. One thing that Thep discovered was that, in an era where mass media and print were limited to the elite, responses to the military or the speeches of King Rama VI and King Rama VII did not position anyone as the enemy to the military as an institution in a straightforward manner, even when the challenges to the existence of the throne were at their peak, i.e. before the revolution on 1932, such as the speech of King Rama VII in March 1932, or after the 1912 Palace Revolt. King Rama VI, who authored a royal article on “Seizing Power” (ฉวยอำนาจ), still chose to give as the reason for the rebellion that fact that the army listened to words of incitement from some of the nobility, but the truth was that the military was still loyal to the monarchy.

The Army’s Victory March, Paris, France, 14 July 1919.  Image from Wikipedia

“[King Rama VI’s response in the newspaper] was aimed more at the elite. King Rama VI never insulted the military. He never insulted soldiers in the armed forces at all, but insulted the elite who were in the military.

“He didn’t criticise the military, the institution, the privates, but criticised the nobles or the upper class in the military. Military officers during the reigns of King Rama VI and King Rama VII were politicians; they were not just soldiers. In terms of politics, this group were politicians. There had to be some policy that was not the same as King Rama VI, so there had to be criticism And people in this group also criticised King Rama VI. But in terms of the armed forces, Thai kings never criticised the military, and never insulted them strongly. At most they gave warnings, but they didn’t insult the army, and would not make themselves the enemy of the military.

“If you start to criticise the army, the army will feel that you’re not on their side. As soon as you’re not on their side, then they will look for a new boss.” Thep said that the success in fostering loyalty towards the king in the army is a difficult thing to measure, since loyalty is a personal issue and each king had differences in merit and prestige. This means that their duties and attempts to keep the army and the king on the same side differed in each reign. 

“The reigns of King Rama V and King Rama VI used the same methods, but soldiers had more loyalty to King Rama V, since a group in the army had been dissatisfied with Rama VI from before he ascended to the throne, when a royal page of Rama VI had been in an argument with a soldier. This continued until the Wild Tiger Corps was established, which made the military feel that King Rama VI gave more importance to other affairs than to the armed forces, which lead to the 1912 Palace Revolt. 

Although we cannot measure the result, Thep observed that the relationship between the monarchy and the military was deep and became the line of defence against the movement to change the system of government, resulting in the monarchy and its components remaining in place in the new system, later giving rise to the Boworadet rebellion and the later return of the role of the monarchy. 

“We will see someone like Phraya Si Sitthisongkhram – he was actually a close friend of Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena. He was on the conservative side. In 1932, from one point of view he didn’t betray his friend, but in another we can see that conservative soldiers and soldiers from the provinces are more likely to be loyal to the monarchy. We know that in actuality, the soldiers who joined the 1932 revolution were only a small group, not the whole country, and that a compromise between Khana Ratsadon and King Rama VII led to no civil war.

“Purachatra Jayakara clearly said that if they had to fight, they could, because soldiers from the provinces are likely to be loyal. We can see that most of the provincial soldiers were conservative, as they did not study overseas, and did not receive scholarships, so their path in the bureaucracy would be different from the Khana Ratsadon that had received scholarships and were soldiers with good educational achievements. When they came home to government service, the soldiers that were granted scholarships would be stationed in the centre, i.e. Bangkok, and the soldiers that didn’t get scholarships would go through the old-style Royal Military Academy, which is conservative.”

Thep thinks that the time when the armed forces displayed their loyalty to the king most was not during the absolute monarchy, but when a pro-monarchy group returned to take a political role after the 1947 coup. One point that clearly reflects this observation is one of the reasons given for the coup to seize power from the Thawan Thamrongnawasawat government, which was the need to protect and support the monarchy.

After that, there began to be seen displays of loyalty from an opposite angle. Before, the king expressed loyalty, but now it was the military expressing its loyalty instead. Moreover, the protection of and support for the monarchy is still one of the pretexts used for staging a coup up to the latest coup in 2014.

“In 1932 there were many conditions that cost the monarchy its power in terms of legitimacy, prestige and many problems that could not be solved. At the same time, the military did not need to stand with the monarchy to create legitimacy to do anything, especially after the 1932 revolution, when the army stood on the legitimacy of the birth of the constitution. But after 1947, a legitimate civilian government was overthrown, and there needed to be a pretext for the military to overthrow a government that was chosen through an election.

“The corruption issue is always used as a pretext, but one feature that was seen for the first time in 1947 and recurred later, is the claim that a coup protects the monarchy, and maintains it so that it does not fall any lower. A coup which uses this pretext, using the monarchy as a pretext … means the military has no other pretext to show to the people that they are loyal, because they use the monarchy as an important tool to take power.

“Various rituals went on, with ups and downs, until in 1947 when they started to settle down and became very fixed, and they became something important for the military to use for display, to show that things have changed. Rituals post-1947 were still balanced, but after 1957, rituals were held not so much because the king needed to emphasise that the military had to be loyal, or maybe partly so, but also more importantly because the military needed these rituals to confirm that they were soldiers loyal to the monarchy and to show this to the people.”

The decline and revival of the king’s influence in the military

The regime change by Khana Ratsadon in 1932 was a turning point in taking military power out of the hands of the king, but Thep said that, while the creation of a national armed force under the constitution proceeded, there was also something that Somsak Jeamteerasakul calls the legacy of the absolute monarchy proceeding in parallel. Historical traces of this can be seen in military rituals.

“The format for performing the rituals remained unchanged, especially while Plaek Phibunsongkhram was in power. The rituals that Plaek Phibunsongkhram performed and had the military use, such as the parades, okay, maybe they shifted from in front of the Equestrian Statue of King Rama V as a strong symbol of conservatism to the Democracy Monument, or the Royal Sword Presentation ceremony was changed to a Sword Presentation ceremony, with Plaek Phibunsongkhram presiding over the ceremony instead. 

“There are also other rituals where the King did not have a role and Plaek Phibunsongkhram, as the Army Commander-in-Chief, would be involved. These rituals on one hand retained the principle of giving importance to only one person instead of the position of head of a political institution, since the rituals that were held during the absolute monarchy were to instil in soldiers loyalty to the king, not towards an institution.”

Plaek Phibunsongkhram inspecting the line and greeting soldiers on the way to battle in the Indo-China war. Image from Wikipedia

“I think that he [Plaek Phibunsongkhram] knew that these rituals would cause the soldiers to be loyal to him, as the national leader, not a political institution or a political party or anything else. Although Phibunsongkhram said that the military must protect the constitution because it was an important matter, we must understand that Phibunsongkhram was also the one who gave this country a constitution and was an important member of the Khana Ratsadon. And Phibunsongkhram always used the constitution as a pretext to create legitimacy for himself in governing the nation. The constitution and he [Plaek] were what allowed this country to survive. It showed the might and the sovereignty of the nation.”

On the other hand, Thep said that it was also this very same Plaek Phibunsongkhram who revived the role of the king in politics and military affairs after he returned to power with the support of Phin Choonhavan and Sarit Thanarat after the 1947 coup, in the context of the Cold War, in which the US saw that one of the important variables in the fight against communism in Thailand was the monarchy. 

Thep also said that the return of Phibunsongkhram after 1947 came with the military rituals and structures from the absolute monarchy era. For example the 1st and 11th Infantry Regiments were transformed into the King’s Close Bodyguard, a military unit for the king personally which had been abolished after the revolution; the 3rd Infantry Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, King’s Close Bodyguard was established to serve in various rituals from King Rama VIII’s cremation to King Rama IX’s coronation. 

During King Rama IX’s reign, the king’s role with the military started to be seen more and more through attendance at different rituals or war games. Thep provided an example of when Rama IX once went to watch the war games of the navy in Chonburi. Originally it was a small ceremony, but the government turned it into a large-scale activity when King Rama IX decided to visit. Diplomats, ministers, MPs and politicians were invited to welcome the king. When King Rama IX arrived, he stayed a night and also went out to sea to watch the exercises. 

Another new thing that was arose after the return of Phibunsongkhram was giving royal names to military camps. Originally, military camps were named according to their locations, but later, names were royally bestowed based on the names of members of the royal family that had served in the military or local heroes that had protected their hometown or displayed loyalty to the nation and the king. 

For example, the camps of Phraya Phichai Dap Hak in Uttradit, Suranaree in Nakhon Ratchasima, Prem Tinsulanonda in Khon Kaen, and Phahonyothin in Lop Buri, were named by Rama IX. Later in March 2020, Fort Phahonyothin was given the name Bhumibol Adulyadej and Fort Phibunsongkhram located nearby was changed to Fort Sirikit after the Queen of the late King Rama IX. 

Moreover, the emergence of the mass media technology of radio and television allowed the roles of the king and military to be widely known among the people. After 1987, when Rama IX’s prestige was at its highest peak, the Royal Parade and Oath-Taking Ceremony at the Equestrian Statue of King Rama V was shown live on the Television Pool of Thailand, fulfilling the wishes of Rama VII who wanted the ceremony to be seen by more people because at that time the people could only attend the Royal Parade along Ratchadamnoen Avenue which is quite small in space. 

This kind of live broadcast reflected the importance of the ceremony and the importance of live broadcasts of the parade for the people to watch through the media. In this ceremony, there would be a royal address to the military, which is the only opportunity for a royal address to the military to be heard by the people and other soldiers not at the ceremony.

Soldiers of the King and Soldiers of the People

Soldiers marching at the Oath-Taking Ceremony on the occasion of the Coronation Ceremony in 2019 and Royal Thai Armed Forces Day. Image from the Public Relations Committee for the Coronation of King Rama X

Thep finished off by saying that the power of regularly conducted rituals in the armed forces is directly related to the prestige of the king, but inculcating monarchism is often an individual matter. One concern for him is that once soldiers are inculcated to be loyal to the monarchy, they often forget that there is an organisation, the government, whose orders the military must obey. 

A government that is not accepted by the military is something that is often seen, or a government that cannot really display or prove its loyalty will not be accepted or supported by the military in the same way as a dictatorship that always emphasises its loyalty towards the monarchy. A case where a civilian government is dependent on the people’s votes may make the military feel that they are not on the same side. 

“Lastly, this book wants to show that ever since the military reform up until the era of democracy, soldiers in the Thai armed forces have never been instilled with or made aware of the idea that they have the duty to serve the people and the government. Instead, they have been schooled to obey the king, and dictators that have come from the military. Under these conditions, we may come to understand a specific phenomenon that occurs in Thai politics – why is it that a civilian government cannot control the military? In fact, they have to be constantly prepared to be overthrown by the military at any time, whenever they are seen as the opponents of the military and even the monarchy.

“However, on the other hand, a military dictatorship or civilian government which upholds and clearly displays loyalty to the king, will be able to maintain its political stability with the military doing its job of providing support. And so Thai politics is chaotic and keeps alternating between civilian governments that have received support from the people and military governments.”

Excerpt from The King’s Soldiers and the Fostering of Faith and Loyalty.

Reference

Thep Boontanondha, The King’s Soldiers and the Fostering of Faith and Loyalty, Bangkok: Matichon 2022

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