The Military’s Mission and Its Political Involvement

To hold on to power, the military had to adjust its mission and organisation to changes in political and social circumstances. Before 1932 the armed forces’ mission was to safeguard the king and defend the country from outside aggression. After the People’s Party overthrew the absolute monarchy the military’s mission was changed to that of protecting the new constitution and the new regime. The military’s guardianship mission expanded for the first time into political affairs. It became a key instrument of support for politicians in uniform.

Between 1932 and the end of World War II the armed forces expanded and developed not only to meet the government’s defence needs but also to strengthen the support for Field Marshal Pibulsongkram, who emerged rapidly after the 1932 coup as a strong political leader. After the war a communist threat provided the armed forces with a new justification for its expansion and involvement in national affairs. The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and the Vietminh’s struggle for Vietnam’s independence in the early 1950s forced Thailand to ally itself with the US. Postwar Thai militarism grew to meet the challenge of communism and Thailand was integrated into the US collective security system. The Thai armed forces were modernised and expanded further with the assistance of the US. Between 1950 and 1971 US military assistance averaged $US46 million per year, which represented 50 per cent of the Thai Defence Ministry’s total budget (Snitwongse 1990:91). As a result US influence was pervasive in the Thai military, especially in education, training programs, strategic thinking and military hardware.

One aspect of US influence in the 1950s was the perception of the communist threat. The Thai military shared the US view that the communist threat would come in the form of overt aggression from outside. The domino theory and John Foster Dulles’s containment policy received much attention within the government and the military establishment. As a result, the development of the armed forces was geared to the threat of conventional warfare.

The development of the armed forces further strengthened the political position of the military elite. During the 1950s and 1960s civilian political forces were unorganised, fragile and unable to challenge the military. They lacked mass support and linkages to groups in the society. The Democrat Party was the only organised political force but it was popular only in Bangkok. The military establishment was expanded in part to provide a basis of support for military leaders. Since coups had become a method of changing government, the military organisation was an important political resource for those officers who sought to use the coup as an avenue of control over state power.

Among the three armed forces, the army enjoyed the strongest growth. The navy, which had been powerful before World War II, suffered from its abortive coup in 1951. The air force had always been a close ally of the army and supported the army in becoming the leading service. It is not surprising, therefore, that army leaders have acquired more political posts than the other services.

US military assistance did not affect the political attitudes and thinking of Thai military officers. US assistance up to the 1970s included training programs for Thai officers at major military educational institutions like West Point and Fort Leavenworth, and American advisers were sent to Thailand to organise training programs for military personnel. But these programs did not result in transformation of the political outlook of Thai military officers. Liberal-democratic attitudes, military professionalism, and the concept of civilian supremacy did not emerge within the military establishment. American assistance coincided with an increase in the military elite’s involvement in political affairs and, perhaps because the US made no effort to dissuade them from political involvement, the political outlook of the military elite remained the same.

Without challenge from the democratic forces it is impossible to see the military furthering the development of democracy in Thailand. The modernisation and strengthening of the armed forces has led only to an increase in the political power of the military elite, strengthening their advantage in the struggle for state power. For three decades after World War II, the armed forces were split and became the personal power base of military leaders. Sarit, Thanom and Prapas, who first came into politics through the 1947 coup and reached the peak of their power in the 1960s, were known to have used the armed forces as their support base. Political parties like the National Socialist Party of Sarit and the United Thai People of Thanom and Prapas did not have political significance and were used as a façade to give their regimes the appearance of legitimacy. Personalisation of politics bred factionalism within the armed forces.