Thailand's Security Policies and Threat Perceptions

Saya Kiba
Associate Professor, Komatsu University, Faculty of Intercultural Communication

1. Introduction

Its omnidirectional diplomacy known as the "Bamboo Diplomacy" 1 warrants Thailand, an important ally of the United States, in procuring submarines from China. Thailand has never been a colony of any imperial power in its history. It has enjoyed a relatively stable security environment since the end of WWII. Thailand shares long borders with Myanmar and Cambodia, with both of which it had conflicts in the past. However currently, it maintains good relations with those neighbors; it is nearly free from external threats.

Despite its geopolitically favorable environment, the domestic political situation and public order in Thailand are far from stability. The Thai Ministry of Defense traditionally identifies the following as national security threats: illegal border crossings and organized crimes, such as human and drug trafficking, by non-state actors in border areas; natural disasters; internal political problems that threaten the Thai monarchy; and domestic security problems in the Deep South. 2

At present, Thailand's security policy is focused on national unity, including protection of the monarchy, preserving public order, and response to non-traditional threats.

2. Threat Perceptions and Security Policies in Official Documents

The current National Security Policy and Plan 2019-2022, 3 drafted by the Office of the National Security Council and approved by the Cabinet in September 2019, sets its goals: maintaining the monarchy, national sovereignty and independence, national security, and the preservation of public order. The above document discusses the current situation in the light of (1) changes in the global security environment (external and traditional threats) and (2) domestic security problems (internal and non-traditional threats) as follows.

Shifting global and regional security contexts --- The global balance of power is undergoing such developments as the formation of the US-Japan-Australia-India Security Dialogue (QUAD) and the expanding economic impact of emerging economies. Thailand should adopt a more flexible policy and maintain relations with superpowers. It should also address specific issues such as nuclear weapons, China's growing influence, the role of ASEAN, and maritime security.

Shifting domestic security context --- Among various challenges that the Thai government is facing are: political movements at home and abroad seeking to undermine the monarchy, domestic political struggles, conflicts in the Deep South, citizens' distrust of government agencies, illegal drugs, natural disasters, cross-border crimes, and migrant labor.

The document lists the following 15 policy measures. 4

National Security Policies

  1. Strengthening the security of key national institutions and the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State
  2. Promote justice, harmony, and national unity
  3. Deter and resolve violence in southern border provinces
  4. Establish a border management system to resolve cross-border issues
  5. Improve the capacity to deal with cross-border threats
  6. Protect maritime interests
  7. Establish a system to prevent and solve illegal immigration problems
  8. Strengthen internal security
  9. Combat corruption of the national security agencies
  10. Strengthen cyber security
  11. Maintain natural resources and protect the environment
  12. Strengthen energy and food security
  13. Strengthen national security capacity and preparedness against external threats
  14. Realize effective intelligence
  15. Strengthen international relations equilibrium. (referring to neighboring countries and ASEAN)

In addition, in response to the global outbreak of COVID-19, the Thai Ministry of Defense released its "Immediate Policy of the Minister of Defence for the 2021 Fiscal Year" 5 in September 2020, which lists the roles of the Ministry of Defense under the "new normal" as follows.

  • 1. Strengthening National Security and Safety
    • 1.1 Protecting the monarchy
    • 1.2 Carrying on the teachings of former King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) 6
    • 1.3 Support the management of royal projects
    • 1.4 Capacity building of the Royal Thai Armed Forces
    • 1.5 Security cooperation with ASEAN member countries and allies (including Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) and COVID-19 responses)
    • 1.6 Intra-regional cooperation through ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting (ADMM), ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) 7
  • 2. Reforming the Royal Thai Armed Forces and Promoting Good Governance
    • 2.1 Interagency Cooperation for the "Unifying Thailand, Building the Nation" mission
    • 2.2 Research and studies to help the Ministry of Defense respond to the New Normal
    • 2.3 Formulating operational and action plans for the Ministry of National Defense
    • 2.4 Review and improvement of the organization and human resources of the Ministry of National Defense
    • 2.5 Improve the education and training management system (COVID-19 responses and foreign language education)
    • 2.6 Improve cyber response capability
    • 2.7 Improve space response capability
    • 2.8 Improve ability to utilize big data and establish database system
    • 2.9 Promote research and development (especially in defense industry)
    • 2.10 Interagency cooperation in the intelligence field
    • 2.11 Dissemination of accurate information to the public and prevention of fake news
    • 2.12 Utilization of diverse human resources in each unit and effective appointment of reservists
    • 2.13 Appointment of civilian employees
    • 2.14 Improve the judicial process in military courts
    • 2.15 Prevention of corruption in the Ministry of Defense and proper reception of corruption-related allegations from the public
    • 2.16 Budget spending in accordance with the defense budget plan, ensuring transparency and accountability
    • 2.17 Enhance the welfare and quality of life for personnel and their families
    • 2.18 Enhancing the honor of veterans and their families, and improving the morale of border area task forces and security forces
  • 3. Cooperation for Resolving the Country's Major Problems
    • 3.1 Address the major problems and combat drug trafficking especially in the border areas, gambling, social inequality, informal loans, human trafficking, terrorism, transnational crimes
    • 3.2 Continued support for the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration
    • 3.3 Medical support by the military
    • 3.4 Interagency cooperation for disaster prevention, coordination with ASEAN and the United Nations(UN)
    • 3.5 Address the unrest in the southern provinces. Monitor unlawful maritime activities and enforce the laws and regulations
    • 3.6 Economic development cooperation. Development of special economic zones along the borders. Development of the area of U-Tapao Airport into an aviation hub for the eastern region

From these official documents, Thailand's threat perceptions and security policies based on the former can be summarized under the following six headings.

1) National Unity and Maintenance of the Monarchy

First comes the long-held value that maintaining the monarchy is crucial for preserving the unity of the nation-state as the ultimate goal and that the Ministry of Defense and the military should play a primary role to that end. The official name of the Thai military is the Royal Thai Armed Forces; even after the constitutional revolution of 1932, the safeguarding of the monarchy has remained one of the most vital tasks of the military. It has become more so as the across-the-country "Royal Projects" for creating jobs for livelihood were implemented effectively under the initiative of the Thai military during the period of communist expansion in the 1960s and 1970s.

This same policy remains unchanged after the demise of former King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) in 2016. Since 2020, student-led demonstrations demanding royal reform, stirred up by internet postings openly criticizing the current king (Rama X), have taken place in succession across the country. The military looks upon these moves as a national unity crisis and as a priority issue to address.

At this moment, many factions exist in the Thai military. At present, the factions' chief concerns are appointments to high positions and posts after retirement. Reportedly, there was a feud around the 2014 coup over the successor to the then living King Rama IX, between the mainstream faction supporting the current king, the then crown prince, and another faction that wanted to nominate the crown prince's sister (princess). At present, there are no cadres who oppose upholding the monarchy and national unity as a military mission. In this sense, military cohesion remains intact. 8

2) Absence of Reference to the US-Thai Alliance

Secondly, the National Security Policy and Plan 2019-2022 includes no explicit reference to the US-Thai Alliance.

Thailand is a treaty ally of the United States, and US military advisors are stationed in Thailand. Every year the two countries jointly hold one of the largest multilateral military drills in the Asia-Pacific region, "Cobra Gold." In addition, the US military frequently stops by the U-Tapao military airport. Nevertheless, the document contains no assessment of the alliance nor any description of the line of future cooperation with the United States.

In 2012, discord among ASEAN members over the South China Sea issue became apparent; around 2015, Southeast Asian countries began to express their unwillingness to be sandwiched between the United States and China. Since much before that, Thailand has, in security-related official documents, emphasized peaceful coexistence with neighboring countries and respect for ASEAN, making no reference to the United States, out of consideration for its neighbors, especially Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.

3) Heighten Presence as a Regional Power

Third, while mentioning that Thailand respects the ASEAN and UN frameworks, 9 the "Immediate Policy of the Minister of Defence for the 2021 Fiscal Year" is explicit on its intention of acting as a primary regional power that will take the lead in various ASEAN frameworks.

Thailand, taking a pro-US stance during the Cold War era, was quick to pursue regionalism amid crucial environmental changes, such as decreasing British and US military engagement and the socialization of the three Indochina countries. It positioned ASEAN as a key regional forum. In the wake of the 1997 Asian currency crisis, Thailand became involved in the launch of the Chiang Mai Initiative, a symbol of Asian regionalism, as the host country. In July of the same year, Thailand supported Myanmar's accession to ASEAN. In 2008, Thailand became the first chair country after the ASEAN Charter came into effect. Unfortunately, the ASEAN Summit in Thailand was postponed and then canceled due to the Thai political crisis. Since then, however, Thailand has steadily played up various ASEAN platforms: the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting (ADMM), the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

The Thai Ministry of Defense has a strong incentive in leading security cooperation among ASEAN members. Especially regarding non-traditional security, Thailand is inclined to demonstrate its rich expertise and capabilities to other members in various scenes of defense diplomacy.

On the other hand, Thailand is rarely unreserved in its statements regarding political and security issues in the region at ASEAN summits or foreign ministers' meetings. As for the South China Sea issue, it refrains from making any diplomatic statement more than "Following the spirit of Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), all the countries concerned should restrain from behavior that may increase tensions, and aim for the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC)." In 2012-2015, when Thailand served as a country coordinator to China, it contributed little to substantive discussions on the formulation of the COC.

Thus, the Thai inclination to stay out of political and security discussions in ASEAN and to, on the other hand, make its peculiar contributions as a "regional power" is also apparent in responses of the Prayut Chan-ocha administration to the Myanmar junta after the February 2021 coup d'état. 10

4) Responses to Non-Traditional Security Threats in Border Areas

Fourth, the "Immediate Policy of the Minister of Defence for the 2021 Fiscal Year" emphasizes responses to crimes committed by non-state actors (human trafficking, illegal drug trafficking, illegal gambling, etc.) in border areas.

The length of the borders that Thailand shares with its neighbors is: Myanmar: 2,401 km; Cambodia: 798 km; Laos: 1,810 km; and Malaysia: 647 km. Currently, Thailand has few military tensions with neighboring countries, 11 while cross-border activities of the non-state actors are a headache for the Thai government. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation with the governments of neighboring countries is under exploration to strengthen surveillance through immigration bureaus, customs, and police and prevent crimes. However, no substantial cooperation scheme has so far failed to be established.

As for the Thai-Myanmar border, which is the longest of Thai borders, the 1st Thai Cavalry Division maintains a military base along the border, serving as a border guard. But the relationship between the two militaries is not very tense. For public opinion control and information gathering purposes, they conduct joint activities to protect and support agricultural workers who cross the border daily. What matters most for the Thai military now are not their Myanmar counterpart but Myanmar's ethnic armed groups in the border areas; crimes perpetrated by unchecked non-state actors; illegal immigration; and unregistered migrant workers. The influx of ethnic minority refugees from Myanmar estimated at 150,000 also poses a grave security problem. Thailand does not officially receive refugees; however, there are actually many refugee camps in northern Thailand, where international organizations and NGOs are providing assistance. As the COVID-19 outbreak has spread since 2020, unregistered foreign workers and displaced people entered and exited Thailand through routes unknown to the Thai authorities, resulting in cluster infections in the border areas. The Thai military practices strict border controls.

5) Roles of the Thai Military in Maintaining Public Order in the Thai Deep South

Fifth, the National Security Policy and Plan 2019-2022 refers to the maintenance of public order in the Thai Deep South, where about 60% of the Muslim population of Thailand inhabit. In this region, organized armed activities originating from religious and nationalist movements advocating secession from Thailand or autonomy has taken place since the 1960s; terrorist incidents have also occurred. 12

The issue of the Thai Deep South originated from the occupation of the Malay Muslim Kingdom of Pattani by the Thai Kingdom at the end of the 18th century. The Thai government's assimilation policy invited a backlash from the local people, and repeated clashes between the Thai military/police and local armed forces have engendered deep mutual distrust among the local inhabitants.

On top of the secessionist movements by the armed forces, struggles and turf wars frequently take place among local gangster groups in the Thai Deep South.

The Thai government has made several different decisions on whether the Ministry of Defense and the military or the Ministry of Interior should be in charge of security activities in the Thai Deep South. Currently, an organization under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior is fundamentally responsible for regional development. But the Ministry of Defense considers it a mission for the military to win over the people through civilian assistance such as regional development and income generation. 13

6) Declaration of Reform by the Ministry of Defense and the Military

What warrants our attention is constant reference since FY2020 to the governance reform of the Ministry of Defense and the military. While the National Security Policy and Plan 2019-2022 mentions promoting good governance and cracking down on corruption in the government agencies. But it fails to touch on the security sector governance of the military, including the procurement of equipment.

By contrast, the "Immediate Policy of the Minister of Defence for the 2021 Fiscal Year" incorporates as many as 18 items on the reform of the military and the promotion of good governance.

The reason behind this was an "incident" that happened in February 2020. A 31-year-old senior army sergeant carried firearms from his base, holed up in a commercial building in Nakhon Ratchasima in northeast Thailand, and opened fire indiscriminately, killing 29 civilians and wounding 58 others. The perpetrator, shot dead by special police forces, had been in trouble with his superiors over a military side business, which allegedly triggered the incident. The incident led to public condemnation of the military's vast land holdings, hotels, amusement facilities, and other concessions throughout the country, as well as sloppy base security and the disparity in treatment between conscripts, 14 non-commissioned officers, and cadres. 15 In a press conference, Army Commander Apirat tearfully apologized and promised to transfer real estate controlled by the military to the Ministry of Finance and to properly handle the complaints of non-commissioned officers.

The seizure of the government by periodic coups d'état in Thailand is so shocking as to have diverted attention from the fact often criticized by pundits at home and abroad that there are flaws in the institutional governance of the Thai Ministry of Defense.

After the 2020 incident, the Ministry of Defense and the military appealed to the public about their intention to reform. However, we have yet to see how earnestly they work on any reform efforts.

Rather, what is noteworthy here is the characteristics of the Thai military. It is sensitive and adaptable to public opinion, despite its outrageousness and audacity with which it carried out the coups. In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 coup, the military detained political party leaders, journalists, and civic activists and subjected them to a program dubbed "attitude correction education," while, at the same, condescending to stage song events, festivals, and livelihood creation projects to win public support. Unlike its Myanmar and Cambodian counterparts, the Thai military seems to pay a considerable amount of attention to public opinion.

3. Thai Foreign Policy toward Superpowers

As already mentioned, based on its omnidirectional "Bamboo Diplomacy," Thailand is putting forward a policy of emphasizing the United Nations and ASEAN. Although it seems somewhat ambivalent about its policies toward the United States and China, Thailand is steadily strengthening its relations with each the United States and China.

Since the signing of the US-Thai Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement and the US-Thai Military Assistance Agreement in 1950, the United States and Thailand have maintained a very close relationship on the economic and military fronts. When the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) emerged in 1954, Thailand joined and actively supported it. In the era of the Vietnam War, Thailand allowed the United States to use its air bases and dispatched a ground combat troop of 2,000 strong to Vietnam. It pursued a line of cooperation with the United States. In response to the successive shifts to socialist regimes by three Indochina countries in 1975, the United States withdrew all troops stationed in Thailand in the following year except for the military advisory corps. In 1978, Thailand again cooperated with the United States to respond to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

A peculiar pattern seems to have recurred in the bilateral relations. When the United States criticized Thailand's authoritarian regime, their diplomatic relations temporarily cooled down, continuing, however, exchanges on the practical level. Thailand criticized the United States but kept silent after that. In the 2006 and 2014 coups in Thailand, the United States lost no time issuing strong condemnation statements and suspended military cooperation and exchanges with Thailand. The Thai junta criticized the United States and kept a diplomatic distance from it. Nevertheless, "Cobra Gold," one of the largest multilateral joint drills in the Asia Pacific region co-hosted by the United States and Thailand, was held as usual in February 2015, even under the Thai military rule. Since President Trump invited Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to the White House in 2017, relations between the two countries have returned to complete normalcy.

Thailand maintains close human and economic exchanges with China, partly because many Chinese and overseas Chinese populations have long assimilated into Thai society through trade. Thailand normalized diplomatic relations with China in 1975 and established the Sino-Thai comprehensive strategic partnership in 2012. Currently, China is Thailand's largest trading partner, and the country also receives aid and investment from China in infrastructure development, such as road and rail construction.

At the time of the 2006 coup in Thailand, the then-Chinese president, in contrast to Western countries, sent a letter of intent stating that China would "keep friendship with the Thai government." Even after the 2014 coup, China continued sending and receiving dignitaries to and from Thailand, including senior military officials. Annually, a significant number of Thai military officials are supposed to have been invited to China under the guise of meetings and training. However, this does not necessarily indicate that Thailand is rapidly approaching China in accordance with its security policy.

Thai public opinion seldom discusses the threat of China. Among some bureaucrats and intellectuals, there seems to be a shared concern about China's growing influence, economic and military, in the entire Southeast Asian region. Meanwhile, concerns are expressed about China's behavior associated with specific issues such as environmental problems, changes in the water level of the Mekong River, and the influx of cheap Chinese products and resulting competition with Thai products. 16

4. Unclear Procurement Process of Defense Equipment

In 2017, under the military regime, the Thai Defence Council, headed by the Minister of Defense, adopted "Modernization Plan: Vision 2026," setting a goal of raising the defense budget from around 1.4% of GDP in 2017 to 2% by 2026. 17 In the Royal Thai Air Force White Paper 2020, the Air Force announced its "Concept of Project Requirements" for procuring high-priced fighter jets. The current administration is proactive about not merely procuring equipment from overseas but also exporting Thai-made equipment and software. The Ministry of Defense holds a biennial international equipment exhibition called Defense & Security in Bangkok. Defense & Security 2021 is scheduled for November 2021. 18

However, the Thai government's procurement plan and process for selecting defense equipment suppliers are opaque and inconsistent, and experts at home and abroad have noted various problems. 19 The Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index released by Transparency International, an international corruption watchdog, has ranked Thailand as the lowest (Band E) since 2015. Among the reasons cited are: the absence of a parliamentary committee to externally audit the defense budget; the opaqueness of internal audits by the Ministry of Defense; the unavailability of public reports on defense spending; the opaqueness of high-level military appointments; and the infestation of nepotism between military officials and brokers. 20 Investigations and court cases have been underway to probe into opaque procurement. For example, the Thai Ministry of Defense and other government agencies continued to purchase British-made GT200 bomb detectors found fake in 2010. In this scandal, a Thai businessman involved in procurement was convicted guilty in 2018. The Thai military denied its involvement in corruption. 21

Arguably and allegedly, the current procurement of equipment is not in line with Thailand's national strategy. In 2015, the Thai government --- under military rule --- decided to purchase three Chinese-made submarines. This deal turned out to be the most expensive defense equipment procurement deal in Thai history. By many accounts, the submarines were inappropriate for use in Thailand's shallow coastal waters; they were a waste of money because they did not meet strategic objectives. 22

5. Conclusion

As a core member of ASEAN, Thailand, with the pride of regional power, leads other continental Southeast Asian countries on both the economic and military fronts. More than an important partner, Thailand is for Japan more positioned as a strategic partner. The Japanese government and defense industry personnel take a strong interest in transferring defense equipment from Japan to Thailand. However, as discussed earlier, Thailand's equipment procurement is fraught with many problems in terms of transparency.

Given that Thailand's security interests center around the maintenance of public order and non-traditional security and that a momentum for reform of the Ministry of Defense, including the transparency of procurement process, is gathering, albeit temporarily, Japan may be able to cooperate, through the dispatch of experts to improve security sector governance in Thailand, on support for capacity building in both the military and civilian sectors and for law enforcement agencies.

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