The 2012 Thai Military Reshuffle

  • photo courtesy of wikipedia
    Oct 12, 2012

    Thailand’s annual military reshuffle, approved by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and endorsed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, went into effect Monday, October 1. Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat, appointed January 18, led the controversial reshuffle. Critics, including the Thai media, have called into question the patronage and political influence exhibited in the reshuffle process each year, voicing a desire for more transparency and merit-based promotions.

    The Thai military is a powerful institution and is traditionally aligned with the more conservative interests of the monarchy. In 2006, the military staged a coup against then–prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was seen as a populist leader frequently at odds with Thailand’s traditional elite. However, the loyalties of the armed forces depend on who holds the most senior positions in the military. Thus, the impact of the annual reshuffle on high-ranking officers is a significant indicator of the political climate in Thailand.

    Generally, the Thai military is organized similarly to the U.S. military, partly due to influences dating back to World War II and the long-standing military-to-military exchanges between the two countries. The Royal Thai Armed Forces are composed of three services: the Royal Thai Army (RTA), the Royal Thai Navy (RTN), and the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF). The armed forces are made up of professional and conscripted soldiers—at the age of 20, Thai men are required to serve in the military for two years, though university students are allowed to defer military service until after graduation.

    Q1: What is the significance of the 2012 military reshuffle?

    A1: This year’s Thai military reshuffle is significant because it demonstrates underlying tensions within the military, and how appointments can be used for political gain. Defense Minister Sukampol instituted strategic changes in military leadership that benefit the ruling Pheu Thai government. Overall, the reshuffle involved an unprecedented number of military officers: 881 were transferred to new job assignments on October 1, generating internal friction at the highest levels. Comparatively, 584 officers were transferred in 2011.

    Defense Minister Sukampol faced strong opposition from Defense Ministry permanent secretary-general Sathien Permthong over the nomination of General Sathien’s successor. Sathien intended that his deputy, Chatree Tatti, would take over his powerful position upon Sathien’s retirement, but Sukampol nominated General Thanongsak Apirakyotin, who is sympathetic to the Pheu Thai party. It was reported that Sukampol’s nomination of General Thanongsak is the result of a consultation in Hong Kong with ousted prime minister Thaksin. Appointing General Thanongsak increases the government’s influence inside the Council of Defense, which advises the defense minister on military matters including conscription laws, the budget, and training and deployment.

    Sathien sought to challenge the legality of the reshuffle after Sukampol abruptly transferred him, General Chatree, and Director of the Defense Secretariat General Pinphat Siriwat to inactive posts at the Defense Minister’s office in September. But the Administrative Court dismissed General Sathien’s case.

    Q2: What other senior positions within the military were affected by the reshuffle?

    A2: Senior positions within each branch of service, the Ministry of Defense, and the Supreme Command were affected. These appointments created a shift in military leadership favoring Pheu Thai. General Thanongsak’s appointment as permanent secretary is the clearest example. While Defense Minister Sukampol seems to have promoted individuals with fewer attachments to traditional elites, their loyalty to Pheu Thai is far from guaranteed at this time. Other promotions include:

    • In the Army, Lieutenant General Udomdej Sitabutr was promoted to the position of Army chief of staff, becoming a four-star general. Major General Paiboon Kumchaya, a Thaksin sympathizer, replaced Udomdej as First Army Region commander.
    • In the Navy, Admiral Damrongsak Haochareon was promoted to deputy commander-in-chief.
    • In the Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong will succeed Air Chief Marshal Itthaporn Subhawong upon his retirement.
    • In the Ministry of Defense, which is responsible for coordinating the administration of the armed forces, General Thanongsak was promoted to permanent secretary. General ML Prasopchai Kasemsant and General Nipat Thonglek are his two deputy permanent secretaries.
    • In the Supreme Command, which maintains control over military operations, General Worapong Sanganet is the new deputy supreme commander.

    Q3: How does the 2012 military reshuffle reflect on Defense Minister Sukampol’s leadership?

    A3: Defense Minister Sukampol has shown himself to be a strong leader of the ministry. The reshuffle list faced no opposition within the Yingluck government and was royally endorsed without interference from Privy Council president General Prem Tinsulanonda, who played a central role in the 2006 military coup d’état. Additionally, Sukampol gained the support of the Royal Thai Armed Forces during the reshuffle by exercising a management strategy based on military brotherhood and mutual gain. The Administrative Court’s dismissal of General Sathien’s case against the reshuffle bolstered Sukampol’s legitimacy and authority.

    Q4: What are the implications of the 2012 military reshuffle on the political climate in Thailand?

    A4: Thailand’s annual reshuffle has always created some tensions within the military and politics, and historically it has been one of the more common triggers for a coup. The military reshuffle strengthens the ruling Pheu Thai party’s position within a structure traditionally dominated by supporters of elite institutions such as the monarchy. However, it was not contested by the Privy Council or other such groups that remain influential in Thai politics. This indicates that the relationship among the Yingluck government, the military, and the traditional elites continues to be stable, if at times uneasy. The dispute between General Sathien and Minister Sukampol became a public controversy, causing Army chief General Chan-Ocha to intervene and call their actions embarrassing, but this ultimately did not affect the outcome.

    Perhaps the most interesting outcome was not criticism of political interference in the process, but complaints about the lack of merit associated with military promotions at the highest levels. While it is unlikely that this criticism will result in a change in how appointments are made in the future, it demonstrates a willingness among the Thai public and media to speak out regarding issues that were long perceived to be off limits for public discourse. Furthermore, it shows a growing willingness among Thais to comment on practices and norms that award officers on the basis of who they know rather than what they know. What this will mean for Thailand’s political future is not certain, but it reveals that nepotism will not go unnoticed.

    Q5: What is the impact on U.S.-Thai relations?

    A5: The U.S.-Thai relationship has seen a resurgence in the past year, particularly in the area of military engagement. It is unlikely that these appointments will dramatically impact the relationship, militarily or as a whole. A stronger relationship between the government and the military could potentially help resolve issues between the two countries more readily. However, the stronger position of Pheu Thai supporters in the military could open up the party to more criticism from the opposition. Ultimately, the relationship between Thailand and the United States will likely continue to deepen as it has for the past year, with some minor hiccups, partly due to Thailand’s contentious political climate.

    Kathleen Rustici is a research associate, and Alexandra Sander a researcher, with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.