THAILAND – MILITARY
On this page:
- Military Capability
- Military Coups
- National Security Plan
- Engagements & Cooperation
The Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTARF) official role is the protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Thailand. The armed forces are also charged with the defence of the Thai monarchy against all threats, domestic and external.
The Royal Thai Armed Forces (Kongthap Thai) is made up of several elements: the Royal Thai Army (Kongthap Bok Thai, RTA) including the Thai Rangers, Royal Thai Navy (Kongthap Ruea Thai, RTN) including the Marine Corps, and Royal Thai Air Force (Kongthap Akaat Thai, RTAF). Alongside these are the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) in the Office of the Prime Minister and Volunteer Defence Corps in the Ministry of Interior. Estimates for the size of the Royal Thai Armed Forces vary widely, but there are approximately 350,000 active-duty personnel (240,000 Army, 65,000 Navy, and 45,000 Air Force) and 200,000 reserve personnel – nearly one percent of the country's population. The RTARF has a large number of generals and admirals for a military of its size: sitting around 1,400. In early 2021, the Ministry of Defence announced a program to reduce the number of flag officers (generals and admirals) by 25% by 2029. See the following video for an introduction to the Thai Army.
The defence budget nearly tripled from 78.1 billion baht in 2005 to 207 billion baht the next financial year and increased once again after the latest coup in 2014. Recently, the Thai Government consistently allocates around 1.5% of the GDP to military expenditure: 1.5% in 2015 and 1.4% in 2020.
The RTARF has a diverse array of foreign-supplied weapon systems, including a large amount of obsolescent or second-hand US equipment. Since 2010, Thailand has received military equipment from nearly 20 countries with China, South Korea, Sweden, Ukraine and the US as the leading suppliers.
The Thai Armed Forces have a history of procurement scandals dating back to at least the 1980s. In 1997, the HTMS Chakri Naruebet aircraft carrier was commissioned. Due to its lacklustre operational history, the Thai media nicknamed the ship 'Thai-tanic' and consider it to be a white elephant. In 2010, the army bought 1,576 GT200 bomb detectors from a UK firm for US$30 million. Field tests proved that their bomb detection rate was lower than that of sheer chance, but they continued to be used for years.
For more information on the RTARF's equipment, read Global Fire Power's breakdown and watch the video below.
According to the Constitution of the Kingdom, serving in the armed forces is a national duty of all citizens. Conscription was introduced in 1905 and is still practised; however, only males over the age of 21 who have not gone through reserve training are subject to the lottery process. The enlistment draft is held in early-April annually, and recently the Armed Forces only needed around 77,000 conscripts to meet quotas, which at some selection centres is covered/filled by volunteers.
On the draftee selection day, those who are called up for the draft report to their selection centre at 0700h. During roll call, eligible draftees can request to volunteer to serve, or they may choose to stay for the lottery. Enlisting volunteers then choose their service branch (Royal Thai Army, Royal Thai Navy, or Royal Thai Air Force) and the reporting date of their choice, and receive documentation of the year's draft selection, and an enlistment order to report for basic training with notification details of the reporting time and location. After the enlisting, volunteers are dismissed for the day and the lottery process begins. Each man who stays for the lottery draws a card out of an opaque box: a red card for military service and a black card for release from the requirement. There are reductions or deferments of service obligation for those with higher educational qualifications, but most are enlisted for two years. All conscripts are assigned the rank of Private, Seaman, or Aircraftman for their entire length of service.
Top officials insist that conscription is indispensable, but many question the need for conscription in 21st century Thailand and call for an open debate on its efficacy and value to the nation. Critics claim external threats to Thailand are negligible and there are allegations of systematic abuse of conscripts. The Thai Government appears to agree in the new National Security Plan (discussed in the following section below). The next video is a report on the alleged mistreatment of conscripts in the RTARF.
- ISEAS Yusof Ishark Institute | Thailand’s Military in 2021: Mid-Year Reshuffle, Continuing Factionalism and Rejected Reform
- Lowy Institute - Interpreter | Thailand's military and human rights
- Al Jazeera | Red or black? Experiencing Thailand’s military draft
- Indo-Pacific Defense Forum | Thailand launches military space unit
- The Thaiger | Army to cut spending on foreign weapons, buy domestic instead
- The Thaiger | PM orders Thai Navy to postpone submarine purchases as pandemic rages
The Royal Thai Armed Forces’ official responsibility is the protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Thailand and is charged with the defence of the monarchy against all threats, both foreign and domestic. Apart from these roles, the armed forces are also responsible for ensuring public order and participating in social development programs by aiding the civilian government. The RTARF are also charged with drug control and assisting victims of national disasters. Critics contend the RTARF serves two main functions. First, to preserve internal security by safeguarding the ruling class hegemony from challenges by mass movements to expand the democratic space. Second, to satisfy the self-enrichment goals of the upper echelons of the Thai military.
The military has attempted nearly 20 coups since the fall of the absolute monarchy in 1932. For a full timeline of every attempted coup, see the video below.
The most recent coup was on 22 May 2014, when the Royal Thai Armed Forces led by the Commander of the Royal Thai Army, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, led a coup d'état against the caretaker government of Thailand following six months of political crisis. The military established a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to govern the nation.
After dissolving the Government and the Senate, the NCPO vested executive and legislative powers in its leader and ordered the judicial branch to operate under its directives. In addition, it partially repealed the 2007 Constitution (except for the second chapter which concerns the monarchy), declared martial law and curfew nationwide, banned political gatherings, arrested and detained politicians and anti-coup activists, imposed Internet censorship, and took control of the media. The NCPO issued an interim constitution granting itself amnesty and sweeping power. The NCPO also established a military dominated national legislature which later unanimously elected General Prayut as the new Prime Minister of the country. For an in-depth history of the military junta, watch the video by Caspian Report below.
National Security Plan
Thailand's new National Security Plan, published on 22 November 2019, provides a new play and policy guideline for national security. The guideline foresees global geo-political changes presenting insignificant threats to the country in the years ahead. But it regards domestic issues, notably declining faith in the monarchy and political divisions, as greater concerns. In effect from 19 November 2019 to 30 September 2022, the plan notes the monarchy remains the main pillar of the country, but that domestic and international developments pose risks to the institution.
In presenting the new national security plan, Bangkok assesses no major threats from outside the country, as it has managed to maintain good relations with the region. Internal conflicts in neighbouring countries and unclear demarcations of borders with them pose only minor security risks and do not require the use of military forces. The plan does note some maritime security threats due to overlapping claims on continental shelves, contention over the South China Sea, both narcotics and human trafficking, the development and possession of nuclear weapons, and damage to the natural environment due to climate change.
Meanwhile, the new security plan considers changes in geopolitics, as the power of the United States is challenged by China and Russia. Bangkok has the opportunity to use its geographic position to connect to both the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, for mutual benefit in each case. Bangkok counts on ASEAN’s ability and unity in dealing with international security challenges.
Political trends after the 2014 military coup and the elections held in 2019 to perpetuate the ruling elite’s hold on power both concentrated authority in the hands of the military-dominated government. The new security plan admits that Thai citizens have lost faith in the judicial system and the 'new generations have not had a bond to the monarchy since they lack understanding and correct awareness of the importance of the royal institution as the national soul of the country'. The identified key factors for the creation of social unity are reduction of social inequality, equal access to the judicial process, human rights protection, elimination of corruption, promotion of democracy, and people’s participation in politics.
Violence in the Southern Border Provinces remains a major security problem. The Deep South conflict is a highly complex, sensitive, and multi-faceted issue caused by religious ideology, cultural differences, historical factors, and ongoing injustices against local residents. Since 2004, the fighting has claimed about 7,000 lives on all sides. The National Security Plan contends that the situation in the predominantly Muslim region has improved in recent years as a result of its policies to win the hearts and minds of the citizens. Since 2018 the Thai military has been negotiating with an umbrella organisation, MARA Pattani, that claims to represent the insurgency groups; however, the separatist insurgency is prone to periods of intensification and is ongoing. As of late 2020, as many as 100,000 military and paramilitary forces were deployed in the Deep South.
- South China Morning Post | Thailand prime minister warns of national ‘collapse’ if protests keep rattling the country
- BBC News | Are these people really a threat to Thai national security?
- DW News | 15 killed in suspected rebel attack in southern Thailand
- France24 | A controversial 'morality brigade' in southern Thailand
Engagements & Cooperation
The Royal Thai Armed Forces have been involved in many conflicts throughout its history. Siam became the only independent Asian nation with armed forces in Europe during the Great War, with King Vajiravudh declaring war on 22 July 1917 and sending a minimal force including air and medical personnel who all saw combat; however, most of these were within Southeast Asia. The only three foreign incursions into Thai territory were the Franco-Siamese War 1893, the Japanese invasion of Thailand in December 1951, and the 1980s Vietnamese incursions into Thailand that escalated into several battles with the Thai Army. RTARF operations on foreign territory were either territorial wars defending the Kingdom's borders – such as the Laos Civil War – or missions mandated by the United Nations. To learn about the Franco-Thai War, watch the video below.
In recent years, the RTARF has increased its role on the international stage by providing peacekeeping forces to the UN. Providing the Force Commander Lieutenant General Winai Phattiyakul to the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) from 1999 to 2002 and briefly participating in the multi-national force in Iraq. After the US invasion of Iraq, a military unit of the RTARF, the Thai Humanitarian Assistance Task Force 976 Thai-Iraq (Task Force 976), deployed 423 non-combat troops in August 2003 to contribute to nation-building and medical assistance. It consisted of an engineer battalion, six medical teams, a force security platoon and a support platoon. The Task Force served under Polish command in the Multi-National Division Central-South (MND-CS).
Task Force 976 was based in Camp Lima in Karbala to provide engineering support, civil-military operations and humanitarian assistance. It rebuilt local hospitals and clinics, renovated and opened schools, and repaired other infrastructure facilities. The Thai engineers also assisted in constructing and repairing MND-CS installations around Karbala, while the medical service teams administered care to locals and provided physicians to support the Polish medical company.
On 27 December 2003, suicide bombers struck Camp Lima by ramming a vehicle into the post's wall, killing two Thai security troops and wounding five other Thai soldiers. In all, six coalition troops were killed, and 97 coalition troops were wounded. At least eight civilians were killed and many more wounded. Despite this tragedy, the Thai mission in Iraq was considered an overall success and Thailand completed the original mandate and withdrew on 30 September 2004. The mission is considered to be the main reason the United States decided to designate Thailand as a major non-NATO ally in 2003. For an insight into military cooperation between Washington and Bangkok watch the video below, skip to 10-minute for the military exercises.
The RTARF maintains security cooperation with several countries, including Australia under the Joint Declaration on a Strategic Partnership Between the Kingdom of Thailand and Australia. Consolidating a common view of the evolving strategic shifts in the region and intending to enhance cooperation in key areas, such as defence, law enforcement, border enforcement, cyber affairs, counter terrorism, anti-money laundering, and combating transnational crime, including human trafficking, child exploitation and drug trafficking.
Bangkok and Canberra are positioning to advance shared objectives by deepening security and defence senior officials' engagement through the Thai-Aus relationship, while exploring new bilateral dialogues, and expanding networking and information sharing. With a plan to update the bilateral defence cooperation framework through a reinvigoration of the Memorandum of Understandings between the Kingdom and Commonwealth concerning the Australian Defence Cooperation Programme signed in 1986 to better reflect the depth of our defence ties.
To learn more about the strategic relationship between Bangkok and Canberra, see the two short videos below and additional resources.
- Bangkok and Canberra are in the process of expanding bilateral military relationships, which will likely see the increase in shared exercises. What areas should this relationship focus on? What mutual threats and opportunities should be considered as part of this relationship?
- The Thai military has participated in UN operations previously, such as supporting INTERFET. Noting the size and skills of the RTARF, could Australia work more with the RTARF on regional activities? Where would you see the Australian Army and RTARF working together?
- What are the individual training opportunities you see for the ADF with the RTARF in the accelerating environment for both nations?