Opinion: Defense Minister Suthin and Civilian Supremacy Over the Thai Military

Defense Minister Suthin Klangsaeng.
Defense Minister Suthin Klangsaeng.

New Defense Minister Suthin Klangsaeng from the ruling Pheu Thai Party has the unenviable job of reining in the armed forces – or keeping them happy.

While we can probably forget the more ambitious military reform pledged by the opposition Move Forward Party, Suthin and his ruling Pheu Thai Party still vow to push for some changes including gradual reduction of the number of compulsory military conscription, to be replaced by voluntary application of military services, as well as reducing the bloated number of generals (There are over 550 of them).

These are small steps in the right direction even though skeptics will say we cannot take the Pheu Thai-led government seriously when it comes to reforms of the armed forces as the government is a quasi-military government with two pro-junta parties, namely the United Thai Nation Party and Phalang Pracharath.

That is the only way Pheu Thai could have formed the Srettha Thavisin coalition government since they have to rely on the votes from the junta-appointed senators to ensure Srettha gets enough bicameral votes to become PM. In the end, the Srettha administration did not get the chance to appoint the new batch of top brass and that, which was most likely part of the deal, was left to then outgoing caretaker PM Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, himself the former 2014 coup leader, to appoint.

Be that as it may, it is imperative to try to cajole the government to pressure the armed forces back to the barracks and push closer towards ensuring civilian supremacy over the military – an elusive long-term project for Thailand in order to truly move forward, no pun intended.

This means any incremental improvement in rebalancing the powers of the military vis-à-vis elected politicians and civil society is necessary and even supporters of the opposition Move Forward Party should put aside partisan politics and back such a move for the benefits of the society. Now, I do not expect Suthin and even PM Srettha to be drastic in any initiatives that could lead to reforms of the military, but they need to be reminded by the public that this is an important and delicate task.

It is the responsibility of this and any civilian administration to rein in the armed forces which continue to act as a state within a state and every now and then seized power in a military coup. The Pheu Thai Party, and its previous avatar knew this all too well and they had been on the receiving end of two military coups, in 2006 and 2014.

It is not surprising that Suthin has been seeking advice from many people over the past few days, including from former PM Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and fugitive former premier Yingluck Shinawatra. Yingluck herself was Defense Minister as well as PM when the Pheu Thai Party was previously in power but that did not prevent the military, led by then army chief Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha from staging a coup soon after Yingluck was removed by the Constitutional Court in 2014.

Likewise, the only thing that may prevent the Pheu Thai Party from facing another putsch is probably the fact that they are now in bed with the military themselves and turning conservative – ready to contain if not destroy the new political threat of the conservative establishment, the opposition Move Forward Party.

Yingluck’s advice to Suthin was sobering. According to Suthin, Yingluck told him to not carry himself with “swagger” when dealing with his armed subordinates and there should be no problem. I feel sorry for Suthin and Thailand. It is almost as if we have been held hostage by these rogue armed forces which are part of the deep state.

Earlier this week, his new subordinates in uniform introduced him to 14 military guards who will ensure the safety of the new Defence Minister around the clock. Sure, they will guard Suthin but who knows they could be spying on him as well. Security goes both ways.

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