The Thai monarchy’s influence and role in politics have for decades been debated in academic circles and on the street. Under the current reign, the focus of analysis has shifted from the old network to a new one that is gradually becoming clearer - the military.
In 2005, political scientist Duncan McCargo introduced the concept of a ‘network monarchy’ that would provide a basis for understanding the political role of the Thai monarchy, a constitutionally ceremonial head of state.
A large banner with the message "Reform the monarchy" was raised by protesters as they arrived at the front of German Embassy in Bangkok. (File photo)
In brief, the network monarchy comprised a set of relationships between the monarchy and its proxies, who played their individual roles, which in turn resulted in political intervention by the monarchy without the monarch's direct engagement, with the political events of 1973-1997 as a backdrop.
Under the reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X), the network has changed in various ways, creating a different kind of impact upon politics. The main unit of analysis rests with the Royal Thai Armed Forces.
King of the Soldiers
“Let me begin with a definition of the monarchy-military nexus as an explanation of the relationship between the crown and the armed forces, in which the former plays the role of boss or master, and the latter play the role of servant. On that point, we have what is called an asymmetric relationship which is unequal, unbalanced.”
These are the words of Supalak Ganjanakhundee, author of “A Soldier King: Monarchy and Military in the Thailand of Rama X”, based on his research at Singapore’s Yusof Ishak Institute in 2022. This book was featured in the public panel discussion on 24 June at Thammasat University under the topic “Monarchy-Military Nexus and Resilience of Network Monarchy”.
From left to right: Michael J. Montesano, Supalak Ganjanakhundee, Paul Chambers, and Ukrist Pathmanand.
According to Supalak, a modern military was originally established in Thailand (then Siam) to serve the crown. In history we find some occasions when these experts in the use of force tried to assert themselves, such as the failed revolt of 1912 in the reign of Rama VI and the successful revolt of 1932 that led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, which created the context of the current political landscape.
After 1932, conservatives and royalists tried to seize back power but were denied by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, a member of the 1932 People’s Party revolution who tried to build the nation on a basis of militarism and nationalism through the allegiance of the army to himself personally.
Not until Plaek’s second administration during the Cold War did the monarchy resume its connection with the military, creating what would be called the network monarchy that lasted until the end of the reign of King Rama IX.
One indicator of the armed force’s extreme loyalty to the monarchy can be seen from the content of the 2019 speech “Our land from a security perspective” by Gen Apirat Kongsompong, the Army Chief at that time who later became Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household Bureau and Deputy Director of the Crown Property Bureau.
“Why do I wish to repeatedly portray to you that the institutions of the monarchy, the military, and the people are inseparable? In the past, the King was on the back of an elephant. The soldiers surrounding him, whether on elephants or guarding the elephants’ legs, were not soldiers, but were people, both men and women, who took up swords to fight, voluntarily sacrificed themselves as soldiers to help the King in protecting the land of Thailand.”
Gen Apirat Kongsompong at the 2019 speech.
From another perspective, the relationship between the two institutions of the monarchy and military can be seen from the current King's path to the throne.
King Rama X is the first king of the modern era to undertake military studies abroad, but the third in the Chakri dynasty after Kings Rama VI and VII. The landmark military mission of the current monarch which has been widely disseminated online and in government public relations was his leap from a helicopter into the battlefield at Mak Khaeng village, Dan Sai District, Loei Province in November 1976, one month after the massacre of students at Thammasat University, at the height of the Thai government’s opposition to communism and the fight against the armed forces of the Communist Party of Thailand. The monarchy was involved in psychological morale-boosting operations.
The then Crown Prince rush to a shelter as he leaped from a helicopter in Mak Khaeng Battlefield.
This was the first military action of the Crown Prince after his graduation from Australia’s Royal Military College at Duntroon. This was just one of a set of images sent from the front lines. After he entered the military base and stayed overnight, he led a patrol, and went to see the wounded at a hospital in nearby Phetchabun Province.
Similar missions that followed created an image of King Rama X esteemed as a military figure, distinct from that of his father, the late King Rama IX, who is remembered as a development monarch.
Soldiers of the King
Supalak points out that King Rama X likes to militarise his entourage. These groups sometimes have real military functions, and some groups are ceremonial.
For some groups, it is impossible to specify. Examples given were Queen Suthida, who holds the rank of general and has the position of the Deputy Commander of the Royal Security Command, and the Royal Consort Sineenat, who has major general rank and has undergone night parachute training. Other royal family members were also seen in military uniforms during the enthronement ceremony.
After the 2014 coup and the succession in 2016, legislation was passed that led to the transfer of a number of civilian and military agencies to the service the king, a situation that Supalak sees as the emergence of a private royal army.
In March 2017, or six months after King Rama X ascended to the throne, the 2017 Royal Service Administration Act was issued, transferring the following 5 government agencies into royal agencies under a variety of regulations. It is specified that these shall be “at the royal pleasure”.
1. The Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary, formerly an independent government agency equivalent to a department under the command of the Prime Minister
2. The Bureau of the Royal Household formerly a royal government agency equivalent to a ministry answering directly to the Prime Minister
3. The Royal Aide-de-Camp Department, formerly under the Ministry of Defence
4. The Royal Security Command, formerly under the Ministry of Defence
5. The Office of the Royal Court Police, formerly under the Royal Thai Police.
Section 15 of the Royal Service Administration Act allows the King to design the structure of the royal agencies at will, resulting in a Royal Decree being issued on 10 May 2022, reorganising the royal agencies into three main offices: (1) the Office of the Privy Council; (2) the Bureau of the Royal Household; and (3) Royal Security Command.
The Royal Security Command is in service to the monarch. Its structure includes: 1. the Office of the Commander; 2. the Office of the Royal Duty Officers; 3. the Office of the Aide-de-Camp; 4. the King’s Close Bodyguard Command; and 5. the Office of the Royal Police Guards. It can be seen that it is not just the military that have to be transferred to be under the royal agencies, but the police also.
Section 14 of the Royal Decree also allows the transfer of government personnel into the royal agencies and vice versa “at the royal pleasure”. This provision paved the way to the transfer of the 1st and 11th army regiments stationed in Bangkok from the Ministry of Defence to the royal agencies in October 2019.
Supalak adds two more units that are not specified in law. First, the King’s Guard Rajawallop Task Force 904. It is known that there are soldiers in this unit, but their function cannot be specified.
Second, the Ratchawallop Police Retainers, King’s Guards 904, under the Central Investigative Bureau headed by Pol Lt Gen Jirapob Puridet. It has the duty to provide security to the monarch and the royal family. In 2020, the unit’s name was changed into Special Service Division.
904 is the royal security code for King Rama X.
The network changes polarity
In Supalak’s understanding, network monarchy exists to support the monarch’s role, to make the armed forces more loyal to the monarch or become what he calls ‘monarchised’, and to create a strong relationship between the two institutions.
The network monarchy needs a ‘network manager’. Back then, it was Gen Prem Tinsulanonda who ran the network monarchy effectively during King Rama IX’s reign. Under the new reign, Supalak finds King Vajiralongkorn has a “hands-on” style where he can closely manage matters in the network and create the network by himself.
The centre of the network has moved from the Privy Council for 2 reasons. The President of the Council (Gen Surayud Chulanont) is estranged from the military; under King Rama X, the Privy Council is more concerned with social issues.
So where has the centre of the network gone? Supalak sees that the network has shifted its centre to a group in the military known as the ‘Red Rim Soldiers’, from the unique red edge to the collar of the T-shirt worn under their uniforms. This influential group has taken over from the Wong Thewan and Burapha Phayak factions of before.
Shortly after he succeeded to the throne, King Rama X selected 15 senior military officers to undergo a special training course at Thawi Watthana Palace and established a special unit: the Royal Guard Ratchawallop 904 Task Force (Commando Unit 904). As of 2022, the unit was led by Gen Narongpan Jitkaewthae, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, a soldier with the unusual trait of having a background in three powerful military factions: Burapha Phayak, Wong Thewan, and Special Forces.
Supalak has counted 15 members of the Red Rim Soldiers, mainly from the Army. They are sitting in key positions, especially in the Army and the 1st Army which oversees central, eastern, and western Thailand.
Paul Chambers, Lecturer and Special Advisor in International Relations at Naresuan University, is quoted in the introduction to Supalak's book The Soldier King, "There is no reason to expect an armed person to obey a non-armed person, or in other words, for an unarmed king to feel safe and secure when his servants are fully armed," a point that reflects a critical view of the issue of turning the army into an army of the King.
Chambers calls the relationship between the military and the monarchy that Supalak has proposed a “monarchised military” using a term from his writing with Napisa Waitoolkiat, referring to a state where socio-cultural capital has legitimized a form of mutual assistance between the military and the monarchy.
In the case of Thailand, Chambers said it was a situation where both sides benefitted in that the armed forces gained legitimacy and the monarch gained protection.
Taxes and memory; the cost of a tight-knit relationship
“When you honour a rebellion, you have to downgrade the hero of the time.”
Supalak sees the existing military-monarchy relationship as working to change political understanding and memory by destroying historical sites. .
Examples are the mysterious disappearance of the People’s Party Plaque at the front of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in 2017, the disappearance of the Constitutional Defence Monument built to commemorate the victory against the Boworadet Rebellion, naming rooms after Prince Boworadet and his accomplice (Din Tarab), the demolition of statues of People’s Party figures Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram and Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena on military premises, and the change in the names of two military bases in Lopburi, which were previously named after revolutionary leaders, to Bhumibol and Sirikit.
The Soldier King presents the military budget allocated under the category of “promoting and glorifying the institution of the monarchy, including protecting and defending the institution of the monarchy.” Budget under this category is allocated to all the armed forces, the Office of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters. The content of these budget allocations may have changed, but all are in line with provisions from the Strategic Plan to Strengthen the Security of National Institutions which is allocated budget under the National Strategy.
Among all the armed forces, the Army has the highest monarchy-related budget with 296-336 million baht per year between 2017-2021, of which 106-336 million baht was spent on promoting, glorifying, protecting and safeguarding the monarchy, according to Supalak’s book.
Supalak gives the opinion that budget to protect and promote the monarchy takes the form of psychological operations against threats to the monarchy such as the case of a Lazada advertisement in May 2022. THis was criticized for mocking the disabled and bordering on lèse majesté and the Army responded with condemnation and a ban on military units using the shopping service or allowing their goods onto bases. The other armed forces only issued statements expressing disagreement with the advertising campaign.
Another example raised by Supalak is the Royal Thai Volunteers projects of the Army where we see the Army has a role in sending soldiers in volunteer uniforms to help residents affected by a fire in the Bon Kai community.
Regarding the royal initiated volunteer corps, a Prachatai investigation found that in the 2023 Budget Bill the Navy asked for 12.12 million baht for Royal Thai Volunteers projects under the strategic plan to protect and promote the security of the monarchy, to honour the monarchy and act “at the royal pleasure”.
From a close relationship to important questions about coups and getting the military out of politics
The new form of military and monarchy interdependency and the existence of the Red Rim Soldiers are basic factors that may lead to interesting expectations in Thailand's politics where the government has been overthrown by the military 13 times, casting aside the administration but leaving the monarchy intact.
Ukrist Pathmanand, a Professor at the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, said that what is interesting is that there are conflicts among the military between each class graduating from their academies and the factions that they affiliated with.
The Red Rim group that has emerged since 2019 is very special because they have a direct connection with the monarch. Ukrist speculates that with the next transfer of commanders, the Burapha Phayak faction will return to challenge the Red Rim Soldiers.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Sutthida saluted by soldiers in an oath taking ceremony on 18 January 2020. (Source: Phralan.in.th)
Supalak sees getting the military out of Thai politics as ‘mission impossible’ because civilian control of the military is something the military think unacceptable. In the next round of military promotions, we have to see where the signals come from. If the Red Rim Soldiers keep on being promoted, it may be a smooth transition.
However, the question is what will happen if the Red Rim Soldiers’ progress were to run out. Is it possible that the King will pick officers in his personal regiments to command the armed forces?
Another interesting question is whether there will be another coup now that the King has taken more control of the two regiments positioned in Bangkok. In response to this question, Supalak thinks that coups are still possible.
“From my conversations with politicians, soldiers, ex-soldiers and those who are currently in office, they say that now the King has his own combat-ready private army, other units won’t dare to challenge them by staging a coup. But my argument is that a coup still has a chance to happen if it has the consent of the palace. History has already told us that coups never succeed without the consent of the palace,” said Supalak.
Chambers thinks that the factionalism among the military can find unity under the King and fear of the future will make the two sides cling to each other. Getting the military out of politics is impossible as long as the military continues to be supported by the palace or the elite and if civilians remain politically divided.
If the anti-monarchy movement grows, the King needs a strong military to protect the monarchy’s interests, but a strong military may ultimately be difficult for the King to control. The military will remain an important player in guaranteeing their status and existence as the king's soldiers, and will try to manage the relationship between the monarchy and the army.
Chambers also thinks that the military will continue to play a prominent role in Thailand in guaranteeing the resilience of the monarchised military and taking the role of managing the monarchy-military relationship.
Political scientist McCargo who initiated the idea of the network monarchy thinks that his idea has taken on a life on its own via the public debates and interpretations of others until he no longer sees it as his idea because the current context is different from when it originated under a civilian administration after the military’s withdrawal because of the events of Black May.
However, he thinks that the “network” still exists under King Rama X despite many changes in its nature. He thinks that network players still know what to do when there is a signal of intent as happened with the 2019 royal statement after the Thai Raksa Chart Party nominated former Princess Ubolratana as candidate for prime minister.