From early times, the country’s kings were, with few exceptions, military leaders, and the history of their reigns is replete with accounts of armed conflict. The Thai peasants followed their kings and nobles into war and then between wars returned to the land. The few professional retainers and mercenaries who made up the permanent military establishment neither enjoyed special privileges or prestige nor exercised any particular influence over national life. Military leaders were usually members or favorites of the royal family with an aptitude for military organization and command. Their authority and tenure, however, were subject to the king’s pleasure.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Thai learned much from their campaigns against the Khmer and the Burmese. Following the Khmer example, King Trailok (1448-88) established administrative divisions and increased the proficiency of his army. A successor, Ramathibodi II (1491-1529), wrote a treatise on warfare and further improved Thai military capability by reorganizing his army and instituting compulsory service. In the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese introduced firearms into the kingdom and taught the Thai the arts of casting bronze cannon and constructing stone fortifications. Portuguese mercenaries also served the king as bodyguards, armorers, and instructors in musketry.
The Thai-Burmese struggle continued into the seventeenth century, and the exploits of King Naresuan (1590-1605) contributed greatly to emerging Thai military traditions. In a battle in 1593 that secured his kingdom against an invading Burmese army, Naresuan killed the enemy crown prince in a famous duel in which the contenders were mounted on elephants. His exploits were recounted in later school texts as part of the country’s heritage of courage and valor.
King Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851-68) took the first steps toward the development of modern fighting forces. Under his rule and that of his son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), the Thai were particularly receptive to Western ideas and methods. They established military and naval cadet schools, brought in limited numbers of foreign advisers, and began reorganizing the army along European lines. In 1894 the Ministry of Defense was formed, giving the military for the first time a recognized position in the governmental hierarchy.
These developments laid the groundwork for the creation of a professional military officer class and for the establishment of a permanent and relatively modern military organization. Although the king maintained complete control, princes and other high-ranking members of the royal family continued to hold key positions within the military. ln 1905 a law was passed designating the crown prince as commander in chief of the army. In 1912 King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, 1910-25) established the National Defense Council, composed of military and civilian officials, with himself at the head. During this same period antimonarchist sentiment found its first clandestine expression in a small group of army and navy officers who resented the king’s favoring units that served as the palace guard. Powerful princes of the time also indicated their displeasure at the king’s practice of appointing commoners to high government positions, including senior military posts.
In succeeding years, Thai kings gave increasing attention to building a modern military establishment, which they began to use to further the country’s international interests. In World War I Thailand joined the Allied Powers and sent a small contingent of soldiers to France. The kingdom’s demonstrated ability to develop its own military force with only limited foreign assistance became an effective argument in obtaining favorable revision of treaties with France and Britain in the early 1920s . During this period the first full-fledged Thai army, a force consisting of roughly 30,000 officers and men, was organized and trained according to European military concepts and practices.
The acceptance of Western influence by the Thai ruling elite at the beginning of the twentieth century significantly affected the role of the military. By the 1930s, many officers had attended European military schools, where they learned not only modern fighting tactics but also new social concepts and political patterns. Similarly, many civilians who had studied abroad had become interested in liberalizing the governmental system. These civilian leaders enlisted support among the military, and the resulting coup d’etat in June 1932 brought about the transformation of the absolute monarchy into a constitutional government (see Beginning of the Constitutional Era , ch. 1). It also established the military as a dominant force in national political life.
During World War II the Thai armed forces grew in strength to about 60,000. In the period of political instability following the war, however, the size of the military establishment fluctuated markedly. When the military elite was in power as a result of a coup d’etat, the armed forces expanded. When countercoups brought civilian-led administrations, military force reductions followed.
In 1950 the Thai entered into various aid agreements with the United States and received grants through the latter’s Military Assistance Program (MAP). Under this arrangement, the Thai initiated a comprehensive modernization program based on American advice, equipment, and training (see Foreign Security Assistance , this ch.). Two decades later these measures had transformed the Thai military into a modern armed force with greatly improved capabilities for national defense and internal security. By 1970 the armed forces had increased to approximately 155,000. Their growth maintained a moderate pace thereafter (see thailand/th_appen.asp#table16"> table 16, Appendix).