Thai law required that all male citizens serve in the military. The 1978 Constitution, in a section entitled "Duties of the Thai People," states, "every person shall have a duty to defend the country [and] . . . to serve in the armed forces as provided by law." Similar requirements appear in the 1978 document’s numerous predecessors. The Military Service Act, administered by the army, implemented these requirements. The act--a national conscription law--required two years of active military duty.
All Thai males were required to register when they became eighteen years of age but were not liable for compulsory service until they reached twenty-one. At that time they were notified to report for a physical examination, on the basis of which they were assigned to one of four categories: those who were fully qualified to serve in combat units; those who were partially disabled and only eligible for duty in support units; those with minor physical disqualifications that could be corrected before the next call-up; and those who were physically disqualified and exempt.
In addition to those exempted for physical reasons, Buddhist monks, career teachers, cadets attending the military academies, students in certain technical courses, naturalized citizens, and persons convicted of a crime subject to a penalty of ten years’ imprisonment were not drafted. Waivers were granted in cases of personal hardship, for example, when an individual was the sole support of parents or minor children. Students in the later stages of their education also found it easy to obtain deferment. The exemption granted to naturalized citizens was designed to exclude the country’s Chinese from the armed forces, but selective application of the law to other ethnic minorities as well resulted in a military establishment composed largely of members of the Thai Buddhist majority.
Thailand has always had an ample source of manpower for its military needs. In 1987 population estimates indicated that the country had nearly 13.6 million males aged 15 to 49, of whom an estimated 8.4 million were considered physically fit for military service. Roughly 520,000 young men reached the age of 18 each year, but the total annual induction averaged only about 30,000 men. Because the supply exceeded the demand, only those in the best physical condition were selected for service. Many inductees came from rural areas and were reliable, hardy, physically fit, adaptable, and accustomed to working outdoors in tropical heat, humid climate, and monsoon rains; many possessed a keen interest in learning and developing new skills. The average conscript accepted his military obligation as a necessary duty.
Inductees were usually sent to the nearest army, navy, or air force installation where the need was greatest. There the conscripts were assigned to units for training and then to appropriate service elements for duty. After a two-year commitment, conscripts who did not choose to reenlist (or were not permitted to do so) were released and placed on unassigned reserve status for an additional twenty-three years. During this period of reserve service they were subject to recall whenever a need arose. The priority of recall was based on age, the youngest reserves being reinducted first. In mid-1987 observers estimated that the system had produced more than 500,000 reserves whose military training and physical fitness made them reasonably available for emergency use in the army.
Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) were, in most cases, former conscripts who had reenlisted to make a career of the military service. On the basis of past performance, they were selected to attend an NCO school and upon graduation returned to their units in their new status. A limited number of NCOs were procured by placing on active duty graduates of reserve training programs conducted by the Ministry of Defense.
The officer corps of the armed forces was composed mainly of graduates of the service academies and officer candidate schools. It also included a small number of reserve officers who had completed training courses while in college and subsequently assumed military careers. A few officers with special qualifications were commissioned directly from civilian life.
In the past the practice of appointing civilians to military positions was fairly widespread and had important political effects. Under the Civil Service Act of 1928 (amended in 1954), a number of high-ranking officials once prominent in the political bureaucracy became generals and acceded to prominent positions within the military hierarchy without undergoing military training or rising through the ranks. Although most of these senior officers worked as administrators on headquarters staffs, they had political clout and were important members of the contending military cliques that figured prominently in the coups and countercoups after 1932. Thailand’s laws governing mandatory military retirement eventually eliminated these old guard generals and admirals, but the established pattern of rival cliques within the armed forces--particularly the army--persisted in the late 1980s.
Within the army, in particular, military academy classmate groupings were important. Officers identified with their classmates, and detailed records were kept of each academy class. Most Thai officers knew with which class any other officer had graduated. In the mid-1980s, officers from Class Five, led by Lieutenant General Suchinda Kraprayoon, the army deputy chief of staff, commanded seven of the army’s thirteen divisions and formed a crucial base of political support for Prime Minister Prem.
Little information was publicly available on promotion criteria and the rate of upward mobility within the officer corps. It was known, however, that the pay--even for senior officers--was low by Western standards. This fact of military life encouraged officers of every rank to engage in outside commercial activities--a practice that not only supplemented their service income but also enhanced their influence within the society. Many in important military positions served simultaneously on corporate directorates, family real estate companies, and other business ventures. For the most part, the Thai citizenry had come to accept their leaders’ threefold roles as soldiers, businessmen, and politicians.
Following the coups of the 1950s and 1960s, officers in the losing factions were either purged or relegated to positions of little importance or potential threat. Falls from grace, however, were less permanent or violent in the Thai system than in some other countries. At the same time, officers who backed the winning group were usually promoted and given assignments supporting the new leaders. Other officers played important roles in expanding the power of governing regimes by transferring from the army to the police and from the military to the bureaucracy.
After the coup of October 1977, which brought Kriangsak, the supreme commander of the armed forces, into national power as prime minister, much publicity was given to the role played by a faction within the officer corps commonly referred to as the Young Turks. Composed largely of Class Seven academy graduates, many of whom were key battalion commanders, the group was depicted as symbolic of the growing disparity between the conservative old guard of the politico-military establishment and the foreign-trained younger officers who were seeking to modernize society. The reformist Young Turks were critical of the extravagant life- style of the military leadership, especially when contrasted with the living conditions of ordinary soldiers fighting the insurgents. The young reformist officers aided Kriangsak’s takeover and helped nullify the power of the old guard officers’ faction.
However, the coup attempt of April 1981, in which many Young Turk officers had major roles, tarnished the reputation of the group, and those involved were expelled from military service. When a few Young Turks led a second unsuccessful coup attempt in September 1985, their credibility declined further. Nonetheless, in a spirit of reconciliation typical of the Thai system, most Young Turk officers were permitted by the army chief of staff, General Chaovalit Yongchaiyut, to return to active duty in 1986. Although they were assigned to less important staff positions, the move to heal rifts and establish unity enhanced the political credentials of General Chaovalit.
By the late 1980s, the Thai army had a large group of welltrained , forward-looking officers, many of whom occupied influential command and staff posts. This group of younger officers was described as increasingly outraged at the inefficient, expensive Thai-style democracy. Their growing influence was reflected in the increased attention given to their views by the government.