The navy of the land of smiles, Thailand partnered with the People’s Republic of China during the Blue Strike-2023 for advanced joint naval training. This show of naval prowess saw a total of 2,506 personnel actively involved from both countries. One of the highlights of the drill was a submarine familiarisation spectacle which featured a Changcheng Chinese submarine. It’s worth noting that the Thai government has forward plans to acquire three of such submarines from the Asian powerhouse, China. This joint drill serves as a testament to the strategic alliance between both countries.
Given the political backdrop with the new Defence Minister, Sutin Klungsang, it comes as no surprise that his ability to champion effective collaboration with the military amidst political volatility is eagerly anticipated. As a civilian in control of military affairs, his plate is full with a myriad of challenges including implementing military reforms, quelling the southern unrest, and navigating military relations within the regional block.
The Pheu Thai-led coalition government, under the keen watch of its believed de facto leader, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has unequivocally shown its preference for a civilian-led defence ministry. Such a move is to ensure the military does not pose a threat to the government and to prevent any future occurrence of coups.
Past reigns of prime ministers have been marked with military coups, like the Thaksin administration which was brought down in September 2006, and similar fate encountered by the government led by Yingluck, his younger sister in May 2014. Thus, this new approach by the Pheu Thai-led government towards civilian-military affairs is born out of a deep-seated mistrust for the military.
The role of political generals in Thai politics has been a bittersweet one. While some have gained notable success with political roles, others have seen their political careers abruptly ended. A notable instance is the three generals also known as the “Three Por” generals. These generals are; former prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) leader and former deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwon, and former interior minister Anupong Paojinda. Their influence over Thai politics was profound.
Significantly, the appointment of Mr. Sutin, over former chief strategist of the PPRP Gen Vit Thephasdin Na Ayutthaya, and former secretary-general of the National Security Council Gen Natthapon Nakpanich, gives credence to Mr. Thaksin’s drive for civic oversight of the armed forces.
This move, however, was not without compromise. Gen Natthapon is now expected to serve as the Defence Minister’s secretary-general. In addition to Mr. Sutin’s appointment, another civilian, Deputy Prime Minister Phumtham Wechayachai is also expected to take charge of national security matters. This further affirms the government’s intention to suppress military influence.
The uncertainty of who will be appointed to spearhead the government’s negotiation effort in restoring peace in the deep South, makes this yet another topic of crucial interest. It’s a daunting task, and only time will tell whether the government will favour a civilian or military appointee for this role.
International and regional issues cannot be overlooked by the new minister, as the Foreign Affairs Ministry would require the Defence Ministry’s cooperation to address such issues effectively. This is evident in the Myanmar crisis discussed at the recent Asean Summit in Indonesia.
Moreover, it is curious to see how the new minister will handle the balance in military relations between the US and China, two of the world’s dominant powers. Maintaining this balance will not only benefit Thailand but also prevent it from being forced to pick sides in any potential conflict or disagreement.
In relation to defense budget spend, Mr. Sutin’s background will come handy having worked on a House committee on national spending. Enhanced budgetary knowledge could be leveraged to implement changes specifically in relation to the military conscription process, making a shift towards a voluntary recruitment system.
The ambition may be big, but the Defence Ministry and the armed forces working cohesively, can potentially become financially self-reliant, rather than solely depending on national budgets. One approach could be making hospitals run by the military open to the public to boost their revenue.
It is expected that the proactive policies and strategies of both Mr. Sutin and the new Pheu Thai-led government will both further the restoration of peace and maintain stability in the region.