In Thailand, Military Still Has the Final Word : Soldiers Have No Moral or Political Difficulties About Ousting Governments

Times Staff Writer

Discussing the Thai military in his Bangkok home, retired Gen. Saiyud Kerdpol reached into his wallet and extracted a printed list of past coups to double-check the date of one of them.

“It was November, 1971,” the general said. “The prime minister staged a coup against himself, against his own government.”

When a former supreme commander of the Thai armed forces needs a crib sheet to keep up with the coups, it is clear that the military plays an active role in Thailand. And now, in the aftermath of the latest attempted coup, Sept. 9, the place of the armed forces in Thai society, politics and government is again in the spotlight.

Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda has said the sight of tanks in the street--it was Thailand’s 15th coup attempt in 50 years--damaged the country’s image abroad.


No Moral Difficulties

Beyond the fact that it was a naked grab for power by a military faction, the objectives of the failed coup remain unclear here. But it did demonstrate that Thai soldiers still have no moral or political difficulties about ousting a government.

The parliamentary system is “the right way,” Saiyud said, but that has not always been so clear to the military. And civilians, he added, “did not understand the security situation. Thai independence and stability has been protected by the military.”

Surin Pitsuwan, a political scientist at Thammasat University, said, “It is known here that the military leaders detest political confusions which are symptomatic of the emerging parliamentary democracy.”


The military’s traditional influence is not likely to diminish as a result of the recent failed coup, but it could take other forms. One possibility being talked about here is a military-backed political party.

The armed forces, Surin said, " . . . appear to be struggling hard to regain their traditional dominance over the Thai body politic. Some . . . (officers) have reportedly expressed keen interest in the Indonesian model of the military-backed political party.”

Whiskey Distributors

The initial vehicle, Surin and others suggest, could be the Mass Development Corp., founded last year by a group of active and former officers. One potential source of its revenue: The corporation has bid for exclusive distribution rights for whiskey from the state distillery.


The founders say the corporation is raising funds for military welfare programs. But Supatra Mardit, a member of Parliament for the Democratic Party, told a reporter that she believes its funds will be used to support political efforts by the military, possibly a military party.

Such a move would not be surprising. Military officers “have been the custodians of things political in this country for 700 years,” Surin said. “They have a high sense of mission.”

Last November, Gen. Arthit Kamlang-ek, the military’s current supreme commander, spoke in tones of personal outrage when Prem’s government went against his wishes and devalued the currency.

Appearing on the army television station, Arthit said he had been traveling abroad when he heard the news. " . . . I, who take charge of the three armed forces and am a man of the people, received no attention from the government,” he declared, “despite the fact that I had warned them that the impact would be on the country both now and in the future. . . . “


For long periods since the abolition of the absolute monarchy half a century ago, Thailand has been ruled by military dictatorships. And some cynics have called the current system a mere “fig-leaf democracy.”

The lower house of Parliament is elected, but the upper house, which has sufficient power to block certain legislation, is appointed and nearly two-thirds of its members are active or retired military and police officers.

At the executive level, several Cabinet ministers are former military officers. Prime Minister Prem himself was once the army commander.

The military has always been at or near the center of power in this country of 50 million people, with its history of rule by warrior-kings and with its armed forces now numbering about 235,000.


Even clothing styles indicate the popularity of things military here. The country often seems awash in uniforms, and not just those of the armed services: customs officers wear summer whites; teachers and government clerks dress in khaki, with appropriate epaulets and insignia; many immigration officers wear parachutists’ wings.

And even private parking lot attendants sport tailored outfits, often with several rows of ribbons above the left breast pocket.

As modern Thailand has evolved, the generals have watched the changes closely, often stepping in when their position was threatened or when they thought the country’s was.

“Not everybody believes in democracy in our society,” said Saiyud, who retired as supreme commander in late 1983.


For him and others, the watershed came in October, 1973, when soldiers killed 75 students demonstrating against dictatorial provisions of a constitution put forward by then-Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn.

The student riots began a brief flowering of political organizing among workers, farmers and others. The Thanom government fell and a civilian prime minister was appointed.

But by 1976, “the pendulum had swung too far to the left and the situation was no longer comfortable for everybody,” Surin said. The military took power again, but the brief experiment with a more open system had whetted the public appetite for more.

“Since then,” Surin said, “there has been a debate over the acceptable level of military control.”


Prem’s government has not been highly active in promoting stronger democratic institutions. Aside from the devaluation, he has rarely bucked the military. And parliamentary politics in Thailand is still not in the same power league as the military, business and the royal family.

But the influence of the military would be even stronger if the armed forces were not divided by factions and personal cliques.

“Old boy” networks are strongly entrenched in the army, the most influential of the services. Graduates of individual classes of the Royal Chulachomklao Military Academy take care of each other. At present, the members of Class 5, men in their early 50s, are well-positioned in command of combat units.

Although few coups or coup attempts here have involved fighting, what counts in such cases is the potential to deliver the troops. In this sense, the army commander can be more powerful than the supreme commander, though Arthit now holds both positions. The supreme commander has a staff, but no troops.


Many officers look outside the military to further their personal interests. Arthit, for instance, is also board chairman of the state telephone company. Other top officers, active and retired, hold similar jobs in state and private businesses, including banks.

According to Saiyud, businessmen and politicians often seek out officers in attempts to make use of their influence. “Instead of building their own political structure, they take the short cut and look to the military to help them,” he said.

But whoever initiates the contact, the result is rewards for favors done, which taints the system.

Active-duty officers are barred from seeking election to the lower house of Parliament and cannot hold Cabinet positions. But a number of retired officers are members of Parliament and the army sometimes acts openly in partisan politics.


Supatra, the Democratic Party member of Parliament, said an army band appeared at a rally for an opposing party in a recent Bangkok by-election. And a military radio program, “The Army Meets the People,” takes partisan positions on some elections.

“Many military officers think they have the right to rule,” a Thai academic said.

The tradition runs deep in Thai history. The founder of the current royal dynasty was a general who helped drive out Burmese invaders in the 18th Century. In Thailand’s highly stratified society, military men have always held a place near the top.

“I remember after the (second world) war,” Saiyud said, “things were very difficult here. Most people rode bicycles. But army officers usually had a car assigned to them.”


They also developed sound policies to assure the security and stability of the country, the retired general insisted. But when the military held government power, he lamented, “the priority became keeping the power, and the long-range plans and policies were forgotten.”