Guaranteeing Civilian Control: Thailand’s Arch-Royalist Military Today and its Coming Challenges

In most countries of the world, civil-military relations involve a nexus of decision-making between military officers and either elected or non-elected civilians. The case of Thailand is unique in that it involves both. This owes to the country’s two dimensions of the term “civilian.” The first dimension represents elected civilians while the second refers to monarchical or regal civilians. The ability of this second dimension to exert tremendous authority over both elected civilians and the armed forces reflects its political supremacy over each. In fact, though each is civilian, elected and regal civilians have only sometimes been aligned. More often, regal civilians have found themselves collaborating with soldiers against elected civilian rule. Indeed, Thailand’s democratic trajectory was abruptly terminated in 1947 through the joint efforts of the military and royalists. Bloody 6 October 1976 witnessed a second such palace-endorsed putsch. The coups of 1991 and 2006 follow the same pattern. At the same time, elected civilians have not necessarily endeared themselves to regal civilians. For example, following his landslide election victory in 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra attempted to weaken parts of the system sustaining regal hegemony and increase his own personalist control over Thai politics. Ultimately, what makes notions of civilian control so particularly interesting with regard to Thailand is the dialectic between these two tiers of civilians: on one side a sovereign who reigns supreme, and on the other elected governments which have proven to be politically peripheral.

Such ambiguity of Thai “civilianness” and sporadic joustings between the two dimensions have made it difficult to adequately analyze civil-military relations in Thailand. If civilian control is to focus on the palace, then perhaps one could contend that civilians asserted control over the military beginning in 1957, when Gen. Sarit Thanarat overthrew Plaek Phibul Songkram, thus facilitating the political rise of regal civilians. On the other hand, if civilian control is to concentrate on elected civilians, then weeding out the rise of civilian control becomes more complex. Indeed, the rise of elected civilians in Thailand must correspond with the onset of democratization. But when did this occur? One could argue that such democratization began in 1988 when Chatchai Chunhavan was allowed by the military and palace to become Prime Minister following his party’s election victory. Alternatively, it could be contended that democratization only commenced following the “Black” May 1992 massacre, which led to 14 years of uninterrupted elected governance. Moreover, one could say that Thailand has only begun tracing democratization since the end of military rule in 2007. Yet these options raise serious questions. First, given the continuing cycle of coups in Thailand, can one ever be sure where to analyze the commencement of any Thai democratization? Second, with the continuing omnipotence of regal civilians and heightened autonomy of the military, to what extent can Thailand even be said to be democratizing? Ultimately, democratization in Thailand seems lost in transition.

The regal civilians’ political network receives critical assistance from a royally-appointed Privy Council. Members of this Council, because of their affiliation to the palace, appear to stand above politics, becoming yet another civilian hub of authority–though they officially serve at the sovereign’s pleasure. Among their duties, Councilors advise the palace but have also succeeded in shaping key political alterations. Currently, three of the most senior Councilors (ret. Gens. Prem Tinsulanond, Surayud Chulanond, and Pichit Kullavanijaya) are retired military men, making it arguable that the Privy Council has become increasingly militarized or influenced by the armed forces. On that note, one of the Council’s most notable achievements has included the reinforcement of the “Queen’s Guard,” (the 21st Infantry Battalion of the Second Infantry Division). But the Queen’s Guard is more than just a unit. Since Gen. Anupong Paochinda became Army Commander in 2007, it has come to represent the leading faction in Thailand’s military. Since the May 19, 2010 crackdown on Red Shirts, this clique has strengthened its control over the armed forces though the impending October 2010 reshuffle will determine whether factional military fissures remain unchecked.

May 19 in fact represents the eighth nail against Thaksin following the 2006 coup, 2007 constitution, 2008 judicially-enforced fall of pro-Thaksin prime ministers, refusal of the military to protect those governments from demonstrations, the cobbling together of the current anti-Thaksin government, judicial rulings against Thaksin himself, and the April 2009 “Bloody Songkran” military repression against Red Shirts. These moves against Thaksin have required a solid armed forces. For the Queen’s Guard, this has meant a larger military budget and enhanced authority over civilians to control military reshuffles. Indirectly and informally, this faction takes its lead from Privy Council Chair Gen. Prem Tinsulanond–hence its continued pull over the military.

Prem’s military hegemony owes to four factors. First, he is a shrewd political player, and has long played a careful balancing game to appease military factions. Second, as Privy Council de facto head since 1988, his voice has been crucial for military reshuffles, which must have the endorsement of the palace–upon his advice. Third, across a 69 year military career, he has earned tremendous respect among soldiers. Fourth, the sheer length of this career has allowed him to become patron to rising officers as well as shape the development of the military itself.

By 2010 some might have thought Prem to be a peripheral force since he had just turned 90. Yet, he has continued to be a cogent and leading participant in Thai politics–second only to the palace. And through an exceedingly long and successful career, Prem has managed to forge the military consensus enabling the successful sway of an arch-royalist military.

Graduating from the Royal Military academy in 1941, many of his student peers became powerful soldiers or politicians. These included future Prime Minister Chatichai Chunhavan, Saiyud Kerdpol (godfather of the Internal Security Operations Command or ISOC), Sanga Kittikachorn (brother of Thanom) as well as future Army Commander Serm Na Nakorn. Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanand began as a cadet only one year before Prem. Prem fought as cavalry officer in the 1941 Indochina War against France and the 1942-45 northern Burma campaign against Britain, where he earned foreign battle experience under the commands of Lt. Gens. Charoon Ratanakul and Phin Chunhavan, but more directly under then-Col.Sarit Thanarat.

But not until Sarit’s own 1957 putsch against Phibul Songkram and Phao Siyanon did Prem’s star meteorically ascend. Sarit boosted him to colonel in 1959 and placed him on a military-controlled Constitutional Drafting Committee. Field Marshalls Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphas Charusatien raised him to major-general in 1971. Most importantly, he served as royal aide-de-camp for the palace in 1968 and 1975, reflecting a bond with regal civilians. Shortly thereafter in 1978, the sovereign reportedly helped to raise him to the position of Army Commander, a move which bypassed senior officers. Since 1978, Prem has exerted three decades of enormous sway over the Thai military and Thai politics, including a stint as unelected Prime Minister from 1980-88, and afterwards becoming the dominant force on the Privy Council. Moreover, officers close to Prem or who earned his trust have ascended to leading military positions. This has included Army Commanders Gens. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh (1986-1990), Suchinda Kraprayoon (1990-1992), Wimol Wongwanich (1992-95), and Surayud Chulanond (1998-2002).

Prem has actively promoted the growth of the Queen’s Guard. The unit originated in 1908, though it was severely downgraded with the fall of absolute monarchy in 1932. 1959 marked its re-ascendance thanks to help from pro-monarchist Gen. Sarit. The unit now acted with greater autonomy from the rest of Thailand’s military: its priority first and foremost was to the King rather than the direct chain of command. In this way it would serve as a model for what the armed forces in 1973 would ultimately become: a servant of royalty. Development of this unit paralleled the creation of a 60-man elite palace guard trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (and headed by Lt. Gen. Vitoon Yasawad) to guard the royal family.[1] Like the Queen’s Guard, it represented a wellspring of staunchly pro-royalist military sentiment.

Black May 1992, which weakened the military in the eyes of Thai society (and thus tarnished various military factions), allowed Prem to intensify the construction of a zealously royalist, pro-Prem armed forces leadership. The avidly pro-Prem Gen. Surayud Chulanond’s four years as Army Commander (1998-2002) further cemented this trend. By 2001, senior military reshuffles were being actuated almost completely through Prem’s signing off on them, and one could argue that the armed forces leadership was becoming virtually directed by the Privy Council.

It was Thaksin Shinawatra who brought a serious challenge to this system when, following his 2001 landslide election, he dared to try to confront it with his own politically-charged military promotions and projects. Such defiance of Privy Premocracy by an elected civilian Prime Minister was an important factor leading to Thaksin’s ouster five years later.

The 2006 coup succeeded in placing the military on a trajectory toward united royalist ascendancy. Continued annual and mid-year reshuffles have strengthened the grip of the Queen’s Guard. Cadet classes particularly benefiting from reshuffles have included Armed Forces Preparatory School Class 10 (only those graduates close to current Army Commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda); Class 12 (led by current Deputy Army Commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ucha); and Class 13 (led by First Army Region Commander Gen. Khanit Sapitak). Most notably, Anupong, Prayuth, and Khanit have all commanded the Queen’s Guard Second Division. The military’s April 2010 mid-year military reshuffle of 79 positions further bolstered the dominance over the armed forces of the Queen’s Guard, particularly officers close to Anupong and Prayuth.[2]

Gen. Prayuth has been designated as a likely successor to Anupong when the latter retires at the end of September 2010. Though Prayuth has long been a close friend and subordinate of Anupong, it is his ties with Prem that are most important. Indeed, Prayuth has been seen as an unflinchingly anti-Thaksin, ultra-royalist in line with Prem and Surayudh. If he in fact becomes Army Commander (and this is still not a complete certainty), Prayuth could remain in that position until 2014, when he would be required to retire at age 60. If the Red Shirts had succeeded in forcing Democrat-led government of Abhisit Vechachiwa from office, it would have been conceivable though not probable that Prayuth would be deprived of his coveted promotion. Yet with the May 19 quashing of the Red Shirt demonstrations, Prayuth’s rise is back on track and the military leadership is set to maintain its tilt against Thaksin. Meanwhile, the share of budgetary defense spending which in fiscal year 2010 amounted to 150 billion baht and was set to drop to 148,096 billion baht for fiscal year 2011, has now been augmented to 170,285 billion baht (though this figure still needs parliament’s approval).[3]

Yet the proposed elevation of Prayuth Chan-ucha in October 2010 does not amount to the wholesale enhancement of an anti-Thaksin military leadership. The current Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Piroon Phaeopolsong as well as assistant commanders in chief Gen. Wit Thepasadin Na Ayuthaya and Lt. Gen. Teerawat Boonyapradap belong to cadet classes senior to Prayuth. Yet Prayuth leapfrogged over all of them from First Army Region Commander to become Chief of Staff and then Deputy Commander, a meteoric rise which could have instilled resentment. Of all three, Wit appears the most sympathetic to any future pro-Thaksin government. He is the son of former Deputy Commander Gen. Yot Thepasadin Na Ayuthaya, who was close to late Field Marshall Gen. Praphas Charusatien. Yot was also once a competitor with Prem back in 1978 for the post of Army Commander. Wit is also close to Thaksin’s cousin Chaisit Shinawatra and is a brother-in-law of Gen. Pornchai Kranlert, a pro-Thaksin Class 10 graduate who had been slated to become Army Commander.[4] Neither Piroon, Wit, or Teerawat ever served in the Queen’s Guard nor do they belong to Prayuth’s Class 12. Indeed, Wit and Piroon each belong to Class 11, the same as the late Kattiya Sawasdipol (Sae Daeng). Regardless, all three are set to retire in October 2011. Should the current ruling coalition remain in power until that date, it will be able to influence what soldiers are promoted into these positions. For greater elaboration, see the table below, which indicates the senior army brass, their graduating class, and connections.

Thailand’s Top Army Officers–Positions, Graduating Class, and Connections

Name Position: 2009-2010 Class Connection
Gen. Anupong Paochinda Army Commander-in-Chief 10 (retires 2010) Ex-Queen’s Guard Second Division Commander
Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha Deputy Commander-in-Chief 12 (retires 2014)* Ex-Queen’s Guard Second Division Commander (close to Anupong
Gen Viroj Buacharoon Chairman of the RTA advisory board 9 (retires 2010) Close to ret.Gen.Sonthi Bunyaratklin and Anupong
Gen Wit Thephasadin Na Ayutthaya Assistant Commander-in-Chief 11 (retires 2011)* Close to Anupong
Lt. Gen. Teerawat Boonyapradap Assistant Commander-in-Chief 10 (retires 2011)* Close to Anupong
Lt. Gen Piroon Phaeopolsong Army Chief-of-Staff 10 (retires 2011)* Close to Anupong
Lt.Gen. Dapong Ratanasuwan Deputy Chief-of-Staff 12 Close to Prayuth
Lt. Gen. Malai Kieowtieng Deputy Chief of Staff 12 Close to Prayuth
Lt.Gen. Thanin Kettad Assistant Chief-of-Staff for Logistics 10 Close to Anupong
Maj.Gen. Aksara Kerdphon Assistant Chief-of-Staff for Operations 13 Close to Khanit, scion of former Supreme Commander Gen. Saiyud Kerdpol
Maj.Gen. Surasak Kanchanarat Assistant Chief-of-Staff for Civil Affairs 12 Close to Prayuth
Lt.Gen. Singsuek Singphrai Chief of Army Training Command 12 Close to Prayuth
Maj.Gen. Podok Bunnag Commander of Special Warfare Command 12 Close to Prayuth
Lt Gen Khanit Saphitak First Army Region Commander 13 Ex-Queen’s Guard Second Division Commander, close to Aksara
Lt-General Wiwalit Jonsamphan Second Army Region Commander 10 Close to Anupong
Maj.Gen. Thawatchai Samutsakorn Second Army Corps Commander 12 Close to Prayuth
Lt-General Thano-ngsak Apirakyothin Third Army Region Commander 11 Close to Anupong and Wit
Lt.-General Wannathip Wongwai Third Army Corps Commander 12 Close to Prayuth
Lt-General Pichet Wisaijorn Fourth Army Region Commander 11 Close to Anupong and Wit
Maj-Gen. Walit Rojanapakdi

(severely injured during Red Shirt demonstrations)

Commander, Queen’s Guard Second Division 15 Queen’s Guard; graduated same class as Prayuth’s brother Preecha Chan-ocha.
Major-Gen. Surasak Boonsiri Commander, Second Division Cavalry Regiment, First Army Region 14 Graduated same class as Aksara Kerdpol
Major-Gen. Utis Sunthorn Commander, Ninth Infantry Division, First Army 14 Graduated same class as Aksara Kerdpol
Maj.-Gen. Kampnat Rudit Commander First Infantry Division, First Army Region 16 Close to Khanit
Col. Apirat Kongsompong Comander, Eleventh Infantry Regiment, Royal Guard 20 Son of former Supreme Commander Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong
Col. Sansern Kaeowkamnerd Military Spokesperson, CRES 23 Former Spokesperson, National Security Council (CNS)

Notes: *Generals who have a chance to succeed Anupong in October 2010. Positions in bold indicate the “Five Tiger” Army positions or the positions of most significance.

If and when Prayuth ascends to become Army Commander, Piroon might be sidelined to the inactive post of Chairman of the RTA advisory board. Meanwhile, either Gens. Dapong Ratanasuwan or Malai Kieowtieng, both close to Prayuth, might then succeed Piroon as Army Chief of Staff. At the same time, First Army Region Commander Lt. Gen. Khanit Saphitak will undoubtedly move up to a higher position. After all, he has held his strategically important post for the last two years. And it has been under his command that the Army kept the Red Shirt March-May 2010 Red Shirt demonstrations in check. Indeed, like Prayuth before him, he could move from the First Army Command position to that of Army Chief of Staff or alternatively, like Anupong he could rise to Deputy Army Commander, though that is less likely. Once Wit, Piroon and Teerawat retire in 2011, the new top five players in the army (or “five tigers”[5]) could well become Prayuth, Dapong, and Malai (each hailing from Class 12), as well as Khanit and current Chief of Staff for Military Operations, Aksara Kerdpol (each from Class 13).

The rise of Class 12 could provoke greater resentment within the armed forces as its members potentially receive the choicest positions. This could include Prayuth taking the post of Army Commander, Dapong or Malai ascending to be Army Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Wannathip Wongwai becoming Third Army Region Commander, Lt.Gen. Thawatchai Samutsakorn becoming Second Army Region Commander, and Queen’s Guard Lt. Gen. Thanasak Phatimapakorn perhaps succeeding Gen. Songkitti Chakkrabat as Supreme Commander in 2011. Meanwhile, in the Navy, where Class 12 has held few top positions, Prayuth’s rise could help spark the star of Admiral Apichart Suwannachat, currently an Assistant Navy Commander-in-Chief. Over in the Air Force, Prayuth’s elevation might aid in a higher appointment for Class 12 graduate Air Chief Marshall Khanit Suwannet, currently Assistant Air Force Commander. Yet already, amidst this mostly class-based ascendancy, a segment of mostly non-commissioned, junior officers have become disenchanted with what they see as a biased promotions process in favor of soldiers who served in Class 12 or are in some fashion connected with the Queen’s Guard. Such disillusionment has contributed to growing military disunity–most visibly illustrated during the recent Red Shirt demonstrations.

Indeed, Class 12’s ascendancy could ultimately shatter the dominance of the Queen’s Guard military faction as officers perceive that only one class lords the benefits of promotions. The Queen’s Guards’ initial ability to assert control over the armed forces back in 2007 signified the importance of military unit in the bestowing of senior promotions. This occurred, however, at a time when Class 10 (of both Thaksin Shinawatra and Army Commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda) was severely divided. Three years later, in 2010, the growing significance of Class 12–which stands united–could re-establish school ties as the crucial ingredient to military promotions rather than unit, not unlike the dominance of Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon’s Class Five 20 years ago. Indeed, the future could witness increased friction between pre-cadet classes 12 and 13 as each tries to bolster its slots in the military leadership.

At the same time, should the Queen’s Guard continue to hold onto power in the military, it is unlikely that First Army Region Commander Lt. Gen. Khanit Saphitak, though a former Commander of the Queen’s Guard Second division, will ever succeed Prayuth. Though Prayuth retires in 2014, Khanit must do so in 2015 meaning that he (as with the proposed nomination of Gen. Saprang Kallayamitr back in 2007) would only have one year as Army Commander. Such a brief term could enfeeble the current military clique’s grip on power.

To foresee any post-2014 Army leadership, it thus becomes necessary to look lower down the ladder. The May 19 repression of the Red Shirts won accolades for several First Army Region officers who directed the military triumph on the ground. This included Major-Generals Surasak Boonsiri (Commander, Second Division Cavalry Regiment, First Army Region), Utis Sunthorn (Commander, Ninth Infantry Division, First Army), and Kampnat Rudit (Commander of the First Infantry Division, First Army Region). The latter in particular has the potential to move up to become First Army Region Commander, following “the classic route to power” in the footsteps of Sarit Thanarat, Thanom Kittikachorn, and Praphas Charusatien, who once held this position.[6] Yet Kampnat will have to compete with the reality of Queen’s Guard domination. As such, the successor to Prayuth (should the latter even become Army Commander) could well become Major-General Walit Rojanapakdi, who nominally commands the Queen’s Guard Second Division, hails from Class 15, retires in 2017 and was severely injured during the April 10 violence which claimed the life of his subordinate–rising star Colonel Romklao Tuwatham. Should Walit recover, he would first follow in the line of Prayuth and Khanit to become First Army Region Commander before ascending further.

As for the impending 2010 annual reshuffle, in addition to senior soldiers, Thailand’s military leadership will also be looking to reward the colonels who more directly led the May 19 charge against the Red Shirts. This includes Colonels Apirat Kongsongpong (son of 1991 putsch-leader Supreme Commander Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong) and CRES spokesperson Sansern Kaeowkamnerd (who has become a sort of celebrity among some Thais). In the end, it is such colonels and other mid-ranking officers who must be appeased to entrench unity across Thailand’s armed forces and reduce any resentment with regard to promotions in the military leadership, thus avoiding the escalation of watermelonage in Thailand’s armed forces.

In the aftermath of the May 19 victory over the Red Shirts and Thaksin, Thailand’s military officer corps appears united above, but fissured below. The Queen’s Guard faction and Class 12 are increasingly holding mastery over top armed forces positions. Only if Puea Thai Party wins Thailand’s next general election, might such preeminence be threatened–especially if ret. Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh becomes Minister of Defense. But the perils facing the Queen’s Guard will be less likely to arise from Thailand’s elected civilian governments given their temporary and frail character–especially with Thaksin still on the run. Rather, the clique’s greatest challenge will be to diminish internal military resentment from junior officers and thus ensure its enhanced control over the armed forces. If Prem and Surayud successfully balance various military classes to perpetuate Queen’s Guard military control, then some semblance of unity within an arch-royalist armed forces may well persevere. Yet if such balancing is not undertaken or proves unsuccessful, then internal military divisions could become increasingly violent.

The post-2006 alliance between regal civilians and military officers today finds its nexus in the two top members of the Privy Council who have informally guided military reshuffles since the fall of Thaksin. However, in the next few years, drastic changes in Thailand’s political landscape could well offer challenges to the Council’s sway. This may result in an even more direct role for Thailand’s armed forces. Regardless, Thailand remains a case study of competing civilian realms of control over the military. As such, while unelected regal civilians informally dominate civil-military relations in Thailand, elected civilians have–since the 2006 ouster of Thaksin–returned to being a politically peripheral sideshow. The enabling factor ensuring the durability of regal civilian supremacy has been the forging of an unquestioning and united arch-royalist military. Maintaining such unity, however, will become a growing challenge as Thailand looks toward a future marked by intensified turmoil. In this respect, the enduring hegemony of the Queen’s Guard over Thailand’s armed forces is an essential ingredient.

[Paul Chambers is concurrently Senior Research Fellow at Heidelberg University’s Institute of Politics, Heidelberg, Germany, and Senior Researcher at Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand.]


[1] Cable from Secretary of State to US Embassy, Bangkok. Subject: “Anderson Alleges CIA Influence in Palace Guard,”Feb. 1975, Declassified /Released US Department of State 5 July 2005.

[2] “Mid-Year Reshuffle Involves 79 Positions,” Daily News, April 2, 2010,

[3] See “Military budget of 51-54 р╕Др╕гр╕▒р╕Ъ,”; “р╣Ар╕Хр╕гр╕╡р╕вр╕бр╕вр╕Бр╣Ар╕ер╕┤р╕Бр╣Бр╕Ьр╕Щр╕Бр╕╣р╣Йр╣Ар╕Зр╕┤р╕Щ4р╣Бр╕кр╕Щр╕ер╣Йр╕▓р╕Щр╕Ър╕▓р╕Ч,” Daily News, April 28, 2010.

[4] Wassana Nanuam, “The Big Five: Army Chief and his Big Four Deputies,” Bangkok Post, February 4, 2010,

[5] The “Five Tigers” are those Army officers holding the key posts of Army Commander, Deputy Army Commander, Army Chief-of-Staff, and the two Assistant Army Commanders.

[6] Chai-anan Samudavanija, The Thai Young Turks, Singapore: ISEAS, 1982, pp.20-21.