On July 6, Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly (NLA), unanimously passed the military government sponsored 20-year master strategy outlining government goals to be achieved by 2037. This strategy is legally binding for all Thai government agencies and public organizations with penalties for non-compliance, such as removal from office for agency chiefs who do not comply with the strategy. Also, budget allocations to these organizations will need to be in line with the strategy. Further, all political parties must promote legislation that fits within the framework of the strategic plan. A National Strategy Committee will monitor compliance with the National Strategy. The adoption of this national strategy clearly demonstrates that unless there is a fundamental change to the political structure of Thailand, the Royal Thai Army’s influence is not going away in the near future. This will have implications on the United States’ relationship with Thailand.
As of now the plan is extremely vague with no specific targets set. The strategic plan establishes goals in six areas: national security, national competitiveness, human resources development, green growth, social equality, and rebalancing state administration. The strategy’s lack of clarity could leave room for the Thai Army to step into governmental affairs if it so chooses. Also, the plan calls for an increase in the military capabilities of the Royal Thai Army, without specifying the need for transparency or accountability.
A drafting committee will produce a detailed master plan within sixty days of the king’s endorsement, which is expected within the next ninety days. Once implemented, the strategic plan will cement the Royal Thai Army’s influence on the Thai government for the next two decades.
This effort by the Thai military to maintain its control over Thai politics is nothing new. Historically, the army has had strong influence on Thai politics. In 1932 the Thai army mounted a coup that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand. This started an era of Thai history in which governments would alternate between military and civilian control. As a result, Thailand has had twelve successful coups and seven attempted coups since 1932.
The longest period of uninterrupted Thai democracy began in 1992 after a compromise was struck between civilian and military officials at the urging of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This ushered in fourteen years of civilian rule under various prime ministers. However, the election of Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001 made the Thai Army uneasy because they were uncomfortable with his electoral power and populist policies. In 2006, the Royal Thai Army mounted a coup and ousted Thaksin from office. Thailand transitioned to civilian rule again by 2008, but in 2011, pro-Thaksin Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected. She implemented more populist policies, such as a scheme to pay above market prices for rice, which was popular with the rural poor, but the Army was once again uncomfortable with these policies. This tension culminated in the 2014 coup.
The current Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, came to power after the Thai army removed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the populist sister of Thaksin, from office in 2014 after anti-government riots had broken out. The army seized power and said it was restoring order. Many Western countries condemned the coup and limited their ties to Thailand. The Obama Administration significantly reduced its military ties to Thailand in response to the 2014 coup and called for a rapid return to elected government in Thailand. The European Union also condemned the coup.
Since the coup there has been a ban in place on political activities in the country, including political assembly with the Army and Prayuth running the country. In addition, Prayuth has passed laws and made government decisions by using Section 44, a part of the Thai Constitution that allows the Prime Minister to pass laws unilaterally. Prayuth has used Section 44 to implement some controversial measures, such as altering political party registration requirements.
Prayuth has set a date for an upcoming election several times throughout his term but has repeatedly delayed the election for a variety of reasons including legislative delays and the death of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Currently the elections are scheduled for February 2019; however, some government officials have mentioned that the election could be delayed until May 2019 because Thai political parties may not be prepared for the election by February. Regardless, even after elections are held, the Royal Thai Army will continue to have strong influence over the country. Also Prayuth has indicated that he is considering joining a political party to ensure his policies are continued under the next administration.
The current U. S. National Defense Strategy emphasizes the importance of great power competition with China as a key pillar of U.S. defense strategy. This makes Thailand an extremely important partner for the U.S. both economically and militarily because it is a treaty ally and a country where China is trying to grow its influence. In June Prayuth said in a Time Magazine interview that China is Thailand’s number one friend noting the growing economic and security ties between the two countries. This statement also shows the U.S.’ decreasing influence within the country. This should concern the U.S. because Thailand is a longstanding security partner, a key trade partner and a crucial regional ally key to preventing Chinese dominance of Southeast Asia. If the U.S. and other Western countries wish to have good relations with Thailand in the foreseeable future, then they may have to accept the Thai Army’s influence on Thai politics for the time being.
Indications suggest some Western countries are now warming up to the Thai government. Prayuth has had several high-profile visits in Western countries including the U.S. in October 2017, the United Kingdom and France in June 2018. Although these countries are still calling for the Thai government to restore free elections, these developments show that the West are more open to working with the current government.
The U.S., which had downgraded their military ties to Thailand in 2014 in response to the coup, is now strengthening its defense ties once again. In February, the United States nearly doubled its personnel taking part in the annual Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand. In the same month, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford visited with Prayuth to discuss a warming of military to military ties between the United States and Thailand.
With the Army’s influence on the Thai Government unlikely to fade in the near future and the importance of countering Chinese influence in Thailand, the U.S. may have to accept working with a Thai government under military influence for the time being. However, the U.S. should also find a balance between its strategic interests and promoting democracy in Thailand.