Military, monarchy and civilians

4 10 2013

John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano write together for the Asia Times Online regarding the military. Their collective bio claims they:

spent several years in Thailand while on active duty with the US Army. Both were trained as Foreign Area Officers specializing in Southeast Asia and graduated from the Royal Thai Army’s Command and General Staff College. They are now retired and the views expressed here are their own.

Sounds like they were military spooks while on active duty. That should mean that they know something about what happens amongst the brass.

Their latest report has some bits we found interesting. It is a long report that essentially says that while Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra and their elected, civilian regime have tried to get control of the military leadership going forward, they haven’t been particularly successful.

Some readers might like to view the article for its classification of military leaders as royalist, pro-Thaksin or unknown. For us the interest in the mentions they make of the monarchy.

We jump to a mention of the monarchy’s role in the military. Most modern military leaderships are professional and subordinated to civilian governments. As this quote suggests, the military in Thailand remains politicized, unprofessional and feudal:

The [annual officer promotion and assignment] process has long been a battleground between elected politicians and military top brass loyal to the monarchy where considerations of patronage and capability often clash.

The story of royalist determination to control the top spot is revealing:King and prince

The promotion of General Udomdet Setabutr to the position of army deputy commander, traditionally a springboard position to army commander-in-chief, was the other crucial promotion that favored royalist interests. Udomdet, a recipient of the Ramathibodee Medal, the highest award for valor in combat, has spent his career closely associated with the Thai royal family. He is widely perceived within the officer corps as the palace’s top choice to succeed current army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha upon his mandatory retirement in September 2014.

Udomdet’s story is important for it leads to the palace:

A few months after the release of the 2012 list, however, rumors started to circulate among the army’s upper ranks that Udomdet’s future elevation to the top was not certain…. The rumors notably coincided with royal household announcements of Queen Sirikit’s stroke and related health ailments.

Why the queen? The authors say:

… Sirikit had until then played a key role in guiding the palace’s relations with the military while King Bhumibol was convalescing in hospital from a prolonged illness beginning in 2009.

Now that both have been ill, the palace was worried:

With neither King Bhumibol nor Queen Sirikit now believed to be involved with day-to-day communications with the military, several senior Thai officers believe that Prayuth was cast adrift without the same level of palace guidance he previously enjoyed.

The palace, wanting to retain its control as the king and queen are aged and ill and the civilian “threat” posed by elected governments, and rumors of Thaksin doing a deal with Prayuth,

… senior military sources say that a member of the royal advisory Privy Council was appointed to liaise on behalf of the palace with the military. The royal adviser, said to be a senior retired military officer [probably Surayud Chulanont], has acted discreetly from behind the scenes and apparently provided guidance on the reshuffle list that somewhat diluted Prayuth’s power over the process….

Apparently this move has seen royal intervention that saw “the strength of the pro-Thaksin faction within the military diminished at the reshuffle.”

The palace’s continuing intervention means that a coup always remains an important instrument in its political toolbox.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej


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