Why does Thailand need an army?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In a recent newspaper column Ajarn Niti Eauwsiwong posed the question: “what is the purpose of having the military?” Naturally, this provoked a storm of abuse from the rather dim Generalissimo and his various underlings. Prayut lost it again (has he ever not lost it?) and shouted that the military were there so that “dogs” like those in academia and the media could ask the question.

Some people have mistakenly characterised the military, in the case of the authoritarian regimes like Suharto’s Indonesia or Burma, as a “state within a state”. This is misleading and not actually true. The assumption is that the military have somehow “usurped” state power. However, the military, or the “special bodies of armed men”, are an integral part of the modern capitalist state and this state can take many political forms. In the recent past, states in Western Europe have been both democratic and authoritarian. Spain, Italy and Germany were once fascist dictatorships.

The dominance of the military in the political control of the state in Suharto’s Indonesia or in Burma is not a deviation from the capitalist state form, it is just one form which reflects the weakness of other competing ruling class factions in the face of tensions and crises within society.

Today, Thailand is ruled by a military dictatorship and even when the military are not in government they have had varying degrees of influence. But never imagine for a moment that Prayut would be able to stage his military coup and cling on to power if he did not have the backing of other sections of the Thai ruling class; the capitalists and elite bureaucrats. Together with the military generals these elites form the ruling class. They are both a bunch of rival factions but also united in their determination to cling to class power. The King is their symbol to socialise class unity and nationalism among the citizens over whom they rule. When socialisation does not work they use lèse-majesté or brute force.

Recently the generals have been barking, in response to Ajarn Niti’s question, that the military is “the fence” guarding the country. The problem is that ordinary citizens are not located within such a fence. It is exclusively for the ruling class. What is more, the Thai military has failed abysmally to ever defend the country from outside invasion. In the Second World War they quickly surrendered to the Japanese. In the time of imperialist expansion, they were powerless in the face of the British and the French.

So what is the purpose of the Thai military?

The short answer is that it has two main functions.

The first function is to protect ruling class rule from challenges by mass movements to expand the democratic space. All the weapons, tanks and other military equipment used by the military have been used in anger against citizens. In Bangkok they shot down demonstrators in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. They have waged a civil war against the communists who sought a more egalitarian society and they are currently engaged in a vicious war in the Patani to prevent Malay Muslim self-determination. They have also occasionally staged military coups in order to “hold the line” against civilian political threats. But more often than not military coups have been about military self-interest, which brings me to the military’s second purpose.

The second purpose of the Thai military is to satisfy the sheer greed of the officer corps. Even when not in political power, the military provides rich and corrupt pickings for those in the top ranks. Corruption from weapons purchases, excess state funds for military activities and the chance to sit on the executive boards of state enterprises, all go to lining their pockets. Add to this the illegal trade in narcotics, human trafficking and other mafia type activities. And when they are in political power like now, the opportunities for enrichment are unlimited.

The effect of this nasty parasitic organisation is to act as a barrier to political progress and to divert important resources from the health, education and general well-being of most citizens.