Opinion: The military’s mindset is too outdated for the 21st century

There is one ritual that many Thai men will undergo if they are privileged enough at the end of their secondary education.

Ror Dor, as it is known colloquially, Territorial Defense students officially, and ROTC to the rest of the world. The course is intended to fill out the ranks of Thailand’s reserve force and prepare a force that is ready to be called upon in times of crisis. 

Or so it is intended. It is an open secret that most who sign up for the course do not have the slightest desire to see action. They do so because successfully completing three years of training waives them from military conscription.

The military probably believes that sending generation after generation of Thai men to these camps is beneficial for building discipline and indoctrinating a lasting admiration for the army as an institution. Classes involve both practical lessons in areas such as marching and shooting, and lectures on various topics related to the military and patriotism. 

What the generals may fail to grasp, however, is they are also year after year exposing the inefficiencies and outdated mindset of the military. 

Students, carrying around guns and equipment that were produced during the Second World War, are taught techniques in conventional warfare that now sound hopelessly obsolete today. I still distinctly remember a lecturer, trying to grasp the attention of his easily distracted class, exhorting everyone to sing a nationalist song together. The only problem was that no one knew the lyrics, probably written decades ago in a context unimaginably different.

Many students go through these three years learning the extent to which the army has failed to keep up with the times. They see an army still stuck on teaching discipline to a new generation aware of the need for critical thinking and innovation, still pursuing a project of nation-building considered largely complete by those born decades after they have passed into irrelevance. 

If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is a microcosm of how the army and its personnel continue to behave today. 

Royal Thai Army Commander-in-Chief Apirat Kongsompong speaks during a press conference after the opening of the Indo-Pacific Army Chiefs Conference (IPACC) meeting in Bangkok on September 9, 2019. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

Most recently, army commander Gen. Apirat Kongsompong warned that “the coronavirus can be cured, but the disease of chung-chart (nation-hating) cannot be cured.” It is difficult to even find a vaccine, he said, but they must still try to “teach children to love their nation and to learn how to live harmoniously.” 

Immunizing the population against dangerous intellectual pathogens is a concept that inescapably reeks of the Cold War. Just last October, after all, Apirat railed in a public lecture against “communist” politicians and “extreme left” academics. In his mind, the communist disease never died. It has merely mutated into this new nation-hating form. 

But if the army thinks that it can act as some Ministry of Intellectual Health, it is bound to be disappointed. How can it convince a highly skeptical group of people of the power of its ideas when it cannot effectively brainwash even those forced to attend its own weekly boot camps into accepting its orthodoxies? The military likely imagines that it was immunizing its own Ror Dor students against various intellectual ailments, but it is safe to say that they hardly succeeded. 

It is high time for the military to move on from the Cold War and instead accept some 21st-century realities.

First, there is a principle called civilian control of the military. It may sound like a ground-breaking innovation in Thailand because it never took root here. But — believe it or not! — it is commonly accepted around the world. A civilian government runs the country and the military takes orders from them. The military keeps out of politics. 

Indeed, almost no democratic country allows generals to provide a running commentary on their opinions of politics. Some will say that Thailand is exceptional and doesn’t need to emulate this principle. To them, I pose a very simple counter-question: how would you feel if Apirat was instead lecturing the public about how much he despises General Prayut and would desperately want to see him removed from office? 

Secondly, dissent and criticism of the government are not nation-hating. Perhaps uniformity and obedience had its uses in the early periods of nation-building, but this is certainly no longer true. No one hates the nation itself, but everyone is entitled to hate the government of the day if they so desire. The army, duty-bound as it is to protect the nation, should recognize that those who dissent are those who care about the nation. 

For the army chief to continue deploying such rhetoric against fellow Thais is dangerous and reckless, sowing more discord and division into an already hopelessly polarized society. What Thailand needs more of is a constructive discourse, which Apirat is spectacularly not exemplifying. 

What is constructive discourse? I’ll start as an example. I fully agree with the protestors that intimidation and harassment of critics need to end, and I believe unreservedly in the need to revise the 2017 constitution. By pushing these issues to the forefront of public attention, the protestors are already helping move Thailand in a more democratic direction. 

But I do not feel that now is the time to dissolve parliament. You cannot amend the constitution without a parliament, for one, and any new election held under the current institutional dynamics will lead to the same outcome. Making this a key demand unnecessarily dilutes the protests’ messaging. 

And I do not think that certain protestors are helping themselves by referencing the monarchy, a tactic that simply scares away people who may otherwise be attracted to the cause and makes them a lightning rod for virulent attacks from the right.

It’s possible to discuss the protests — even in a critical light — without throwing everyone under the label of ‘nation-hater.’ It’s time to stop seeing fellow Thais as being infected by intellectual pathogens and trying to immunize them. Instead, let’s recognize the plurality of ideas that exist in our society and work towards constructive solutions.

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