Thailand: Thaksin Woos The Military


Dr John Funston

Prime Minister Dr Thaksin Shinawatra, a graduate of the armed forces preparatory school before his first career as a policeman, has wound back moves to separate the military from political and economic affairs. Thailand’s military dominated politics for most of the twentieth century, but its role gradually declined after the 1973 popular uprising against the government led by Field Marshal Thanom and General Praphat. In recent years – particularly since passage of the 1997 constitution – it has had only indirect influence. Army commander General Surayud Chulanont has ensured the military stayed outside politics; introduced reforms to increase military professionalism; and sought to manage military affairs without political intervention.

Thaksin appointed as Defence Minister former Army Head and Prime Minister Chavalit – who has a long history of using the military for political purposes. Chavalit immediately set about increasing military involvement in foreign affairs, making frequent overseas visits and establishing a new military foreign policy advisory group to coordinate relations with neighbouring countries. He also supported a return to military involvement in commercial activities, gaining government approval for a large irrigation project in September 2001.

As the October 2001 annual military promotions approached, government leaders sought to remove the reformist Surayud, but desisted when Privy Councilor and former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda intervened. In the promotions that followed some eighty positions were altered after political intervention (from the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Deputy Defence Minister).

Thaksin then embarked on an initiative to employ 53 'inactive' senior officers as advisers. Their role has never been clearly spelt out, but two specific responsibilities so far identified have been monitoring a program to turn provincial governors into Chief Executive Officers, and assisting in implementation of a controversial gas pipeline, to be built in southern Thailand in a joint venture with Malaysia’s Petronas. Recently, the air force was reported to be buying six more C-130 transport planes – the rationale being Thaksin’s insistence that they transport agriculture produce to foreign countries, since they could do this more efficiently than the private sector.

Controversy over military matters has peaked in the lead-up to this October’s promotions. Government leaders finally removed Surayud, moving him 'upstairs' to the position of Supreme Commander. His replacement, General Somdhat Attanant, is widely reported as a strong supporter of Thaksin’s ruling Thai Rak Thai party (and is a son-in-law of former strongman Praphat). Unlike earlier practice Somdhat’s appointment was announced two months early, and he was authorised to help determine other top army positions. The result has been, 'a big mess' (Chavalit’s words), with a long delay in finalising appointments and major differences reported between Surayud and Somdhat, Chavalit and Thaksin.

WATCHPOINT: Military influence seems set to rise further with Thaksin’s reliance on it to handle sensitive relations with Burma, and with the heightened focus on security issues in the wake of September 11.


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