By Nontarat Phaicharoen and Kunnawut Boonreak
Thailand plans to slash the number of generals and admirals and cut back on conscription, defense officials announced this week, as the country awaits a potential new government formed by opposition parties that have pledged to modernize the armed forces.
The military has a long history of being entrenched in Thai politics since the kingdom converted from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The nation has experienced about two dozen foiled and successful coups over those nine decades.
Led by an estimated 1,000 commanders, Thailand’s three present-day military branches should see that number cut in half four years from now, a spokesman of the Ministry of Defense told reporters. The exact number is classified.
“There was a 10% reduction in the top brass positions in the past years, saving more than 600 million baht [U.S. $17.3 million]. By 2027, the reduction shall reach 50%,” Col. Jittanat Punnotok said following a defense council meeting on Wednesday led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha who serves as defense minister.
The meeting of the council was held to discuss plans to prepare the military’s “forces to be able to carry out missions efficiently by improving the structure to be compact, streamlined, and modern,” Jittanat said.
Prayuth, a former army chief, became prime minister after leading a coup against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. He stayed on in office following his election by lawmakers after the 2019 general election. Pro-military and pro-royalist parties, including Prayuth’s, were trounced in the May 14 general election.
Efforts to reform the military during the Prayuth administration have been marred by scandals ranging from internal corruption, torture of suspected insurgents and abuse of draftees.
Facing possible censure in February, Prayuth told MPs that he envisioned cutting the military by 12,000 personnel by September 2027 in light of the current threat situation and developing technology.
Military spokesman Jittanat said the personnel cuts could save nearly 3 billion baht ($86.4 million).
He said the army decided to stop reinforcement of the 7th Infantry Division based in Chiang Mai, a stronghold in northern Thailand of the anti-junta movement whose members support the Move Forward Party and its ally, the Pheu Thai Party.
In addition, proposed reforms would result in cutting the number of compulsory draftees from 100,000 to 90,000 while maintaining the number of volunteers each year.
“The numbers reduced continually according to plan. Currently we have 35,000 volunteers,” Jittanat said. “It’s a good sign for full voluntary basis in the future.”
Move Forward, which won the most House of Representatives seats in last month’s election, has promised major reforms to the military. It also questioned military acquisitions including a Chinese submarine project that had stalled because Germany refused to sell a diesel engine to install in it.
A defense analyst described the military’s announcement as a tactic to slow the opposition while a new government forms.
“The defense announcement is likely meant to stop the Move Forward from creeping in on its internal affairs,” retired Capt. Hassachai Mangkang, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, told BenarNews.
“Sooner or later the structure of the armed forces will be altered to conform to national standards – a pyramid shape with fewer generals. But they will have better quality personnel who will compete with peers,” he said, adding that the military hierarchy had long been marred by a patronage system.
The Defense Ministry’s budget, nearly 200 billion baht ($5.7 billion) of the nearly 3.2 trillion baht ($92.2 billion) spending plan for 2023, is smaller than three other ministries – education, interior and finance – according to government sources.
Jittanat said more than 1,600 troops deployed in the insurgent-ridden Deep South had been cut, saving 600 million baht ($17.3 million) despite ongoing violence.
Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), southern Thailand’s most powerful rebel group which has waged warfare for nearly two decades, has been engaged in peace talks with the government. The talks have been paused pending the formation of a new government.
Should Move Forward form the government, it announced that the administration’s peace dialogue team could see a major shakeup with a civilian-led panel spearheaded by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who led the party’s successor, the disbanded Future Forward Party.
Move Forward leaders are pushing for a policy to scrap any special laws allowing security forces what is called unnecessary freedoms to search, arrest and hold suspected insurgents for interrogation.
A Thai military leader in the southern border region, meanwhile, defended those efforts.
“We use the special law to limit the freedom of the insurgents or change their minds,” Maj. Gen. Pramote Prom-in, the deputy commander of the southern army, told a forum in Bangkok last week. “And to protect the lives of innocents.”
Since the regional insurgency reignited in January 2004, more than 7,300 people have been killed and more than 13,600 have been injured, according to the Deep South Watch, a think-tank based in Pattani.
On the eve of Vesak Day, Friday, suspected insurgents injured three Buddhist monks and two escort soldiers in a bomb attack in Rue So, a district in Narathiwat, one of the provinces in the Deep South. The bombing on the day that marks the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha, was the first attack against monks in two years.
At least 21 monks have died and 31 have been injured since 2004, according to officials.