Largely because of the advice and military aid received from the United States in the decades since World War II, Thailand’s military establishment reflected to some degree the influence of American defense practices. This was particularly apparent in the organizational structure of its high command (see unavail.asp"> fig. 15).
Although the 1978 Constitution--like its predecessors--declares that the king is the head of the armed forces, his role is chiefly ceremonial. Until 1957 functional control was generally exercised by the prime minister through the minister of defense. Both positions were important in the national power structure, but they were usually held by political appointees who had little actual authority over the troops.
As the military establishment grew in size and proficiency, control over its operations became vested in the supreme commander of the armed forces. Over the years the influence inherent in the job marked it as a logical springboard to the prime minister’s office. Even in periods dominated by military regimes, the various heads of government watched the activities of the supreme commander warily, realizing that their own positions of authority were subject in large measure to his concurrence. This pattern is exemplified by the military coup d’etat of September 1957 in which Sarit Thanarat took over the government. Assuming control of the military establishment as prime minister, Sarit further ensured his position of authority in April 1960 by securing a royal decree that designated him supreme commander as well. This title was similarly assumed by Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who succeeded Sarit as prime minister in 1963.
Despite past successes in using this seemingly traditional basis of influence, the supreme commander with political ambitions was still subject to the military retirement system. According to the Military Service Act of 1954, retirement at age sixty was mandatory for all military personnel. A year after General Kriangsak became prime minister in 1977 he had to relinquish his additional position as supreme commander of the armed forces because of the military retirement age.
Throughout the history of military governments in Thailand, the effective authority wielded by the prime minister depended, in large measure, on support from the real center of military power--the army commander in chief, who controlled the field forces--and on the adroitness of the prime minister in garnering such support for himself. Prime Minister Kriangsak was successful in this regard in 1978 when he appointed the commander of the Second Army, General Prem Tinsulanonda--a respected professional soldier--commander in chief of the army. ln June 1979 Prem was given the additional position of minister of defense within the Council of Ministers. Prem went on from these posts to succeed Kriangsak as prime minister in 1980. General Arthit Kamlangek served as both army commander in chief and supreme commander of the armed forces until 1986, when he lost the former title as a result of his outspoken opposition to Prime Minister Prem. Arthit retired from active duty in 1986.
On national security matters that required coordinated cabinet action or presented a serious threat to the country’s sovereignty, the prime minister was advised by the National Security Council. This body consisted of the prime minister as chairman; his deputies; the council’s secretary general; the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, interior, communications, and finance; and the supreme commander of the armed forces. Traditionally the prime minister dominated the workings of the council.
The Ministry of Defense supervised the operations and administration of the military establishment and coordinated military policies with those of other governmental agencies concerned with national security. The defense minister received advice on military matters--particularly those pertaining to draft laws, budget allocations, mobilization, training, and deployment of the armed forces in response to national need--from the ministry’s Defense Council. This body comprised the minister of defense as chairman; his two deputy ministers; the undersecretary of defense; the supreme commander of the armed forces; the chief of staff of the Supreme Command; the commanders in chief of the three services, their deputies, and chiefs of staff; and not more than three additional general officers selected for their outstanding ability.
Each of the three armed services was headed by a commander in chief who was directly responsible to the supreme commander of the armed forces for the combat readiness and operation of his units (see unavail.asp"> fig. 16). Although the three components were equal under the law, the army was in fact the dominant service. Key positions in both the armed forces high command structure and the cabinets of military regimes traditionally were held by senior army officers. In order to ensure support from the other services, however, senior officers from the navy, air force, and police occasionally were appointed to a few key ministries. In general the structural form of service units and the method of their employment were similar to those of comparable United States military components, although they differed in size and in the technological sophistication of their equipment.