The appointment of Thailand’s new defence minister underscores the Pheu Thai Party’s desire to deter yet another coup and ensure the longevity of the 11-party coalition government.
It is too early to grade Thailand’s 11-party coalition government, helmed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin of the Pheu Thai Party, which officially took office on 5 September.
It is, however, clear that many of Srettha’s ministers have embarked on a steep learning curve. Among them is the defence minister, Pheu Thai deputy leader Sutin Klungsang (whose surname, appropriately enough, means armoury). It is unprecedented in the kingdom’s history that a defence minister is neither a decorated military officer nor a top-ranked civilian leader with the political heft to command the loyalty of the armed forces.
Of Thailand’s 63 defence ministers who preceded him, only five were civilians and all of them were concurrently prime ministers. Moreover, Sutin has no background in defence matters, is a longstanding opponent of military rule and has never held office — not even as a junior minister.
Hailing from the small northeastern province of Maha Sarakham, Sutin, a humble teacher with good communication skills, joined politics in 2001. He steadily rose through the ranks of Pheu Thai, and shot to prominence after the 2019 elections as the opposition chief whip. It is noteworthy that Thailand’s northeast, which has a long history of “insubordination” and Communistic inclinations, is often portrayed as a burr in the saddle of the military-dominant Thai state.
Given that shifting political allegiances is commonplace in Thai politics, Sutin is something of an outlier. He has been a loyal supporter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, having been a member of all the Thaksinite parties (Thai Rak Thai, People’s Power and Pheu Thai) and a key leader of the “red shirts”, which engaged in direct confrontation with the army during the bloody 2010 Bangkok protest crackdown.
What, then, explains Sutin’s meteoric rise? Amid Thailand’s dramatic political transition, which has created an unlikely alliance between Pheu Thai and its old conservative foes in the Prayut government, Sutin’s appointment can be seen as an attempt by Pheu Thai to silence critics that it has bent over backwards to accommodate conservative interests. Furthermore, Sutin’s appointment underscores Pheu Thai’s persistent distrust of the armed forces which ousted Thaksinite governments in the coups of 2006 and 2014.
Thanks to his unique political traits, Sutin should be able to keep the armed forces on side. Immediately after his appointment, Sutin reached out to the incoming top brass and other senior military figures.
Deterring another coup, thereby ensuring the longevity of the Pheu Thai-led coalition and the safety of the Shinawatra family, seems to be Sutin’s top priority. When faced with the well-entrenched military establishment, the easiest way to deter coups is through submission, not provocation. Therefore, despite promoting civilian oversight of the military and proposing new changes, Sutin will need to be careful not to fundamentally challenge the status quo.
Thanks to his unique political traits, Sutin should be able to keep the armed forces onside. Immediately after his appointment, Sutin reached out to the incoming top brass and other senior military figures. His humble and polite demeanour has apparently charmed quite a few generals, including retired supreme commander General Boonsang Niempradit. As General Boonsang observed, Sutin’s down-to-earth manner will also help him win over rank-and-file soldiers.
Pheu Thai’s efforts to preserve the status quo were evident during the two-day policy debate in Parliament earlier this month. In Prime Minister Srettha’s first policy statement, defence was a low priority. Sutin too downplayed his party’s election pledge to abolish mandatory conscription, emphasising instead a gradual reduction in conscript numbers and using the term “joint development” with the military instead of “reform”.
How will Sutin’s appointment affect Thailand’s troubled military procurement policy?
One problem for the new defence minister has already been solved, at least partially. Between the May elections and the new administration taking office in September, the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) decided to accept China’s offer to use a domestically-manufactured engine for the first of its three S26T Yuan-class submarines instead of the German engine which was in the original 2017 contract.
Germany had refused to sell the engine to China because of its tacit support for Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Initially, the RTN was unenthusiastic about the replacement engine because Chinese engines are not as quiet as those manufactured in Europe (thus making the submarine more liable to detection). Finally, however, the RTN approved the replacement engine after the Chinese shipyard agreed to provide extended after sales service and compensation for the construction delays.
Additionally, the Prayut government probably came under enormous pressure from Beijing to go ahead with the deal because cancellation would have struck a major blow to Sino-Thai relations.
Sutin himself is still holding out hope that the German government can be persuaded to change its mind and greenlight the transfer of the original engine. But even in the unlikely event that Berlin does, a decision on the other two submarines will probably be postponed until the first of the boats is delivered in 2026.
A more pressing issue concerns new fighter aircraft to replace the Royal Thai Air Force’s (RTAF) ageing fleet of American-made F-16s.
Earlier this year, Washington turned down Thailand’s request to supply the RTAF with F-35 Lightning IIs, but cushioned the blow by offering to sell F-15EX Eagle IIs or the newest version of the F-16. If Bangkok decides to buy American, it would strengthen the U.S.-Thai alliance which has been treading water for years. But Thailand may not be able to afford the price tag.
Alternatively, the RTA could opt to buy more Gripen fighters from Sweden which are cheaper than U.S.-manufactured aircraft and more than adequate for Thailand’s low-threat security environment. In 2013, Thailand took delivery of 12 Gripen fighters.
Ultimately, that and other procurement decisions will be the outcome of intense horse-trading between Sutin and the military’s top brass over the size of the defence budget and their willingness to undertake long overdue structural reforms.
But in order to consolidate power, expect the new government to keep the armed forces sweet in the coming months.
Tita Sanglee is an independent analyst and a business owner based in Khao Lak, Phang Nga province, Thailand.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.