AS a fighting force the Thai military has not racked up an impressive record, but as businessmen, Thai soldiers have been very successful. Yet the self-enrichment of senior officers is less disturbing, Thai critics say, than the military's use of its collective wealth to maintain a powerful role in politics.
"What you have to understand is that Thai military officers are first and foremost businessmen, secondly politicians, and maybe third or fourth, soldiers," says a retired Western military officer now doing business in Bangkok.
Democractic-minded Thais, including the interim government headed by Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, would like to reverse this order, reforming the armed services into a more professional corps. The prime minister took a step in that direction with an unscheduled reshuffle announced Aug. 1 that moved key officers, deemed responsible for the bloodshed in May, to less powerful positions, replacing them with more professional officers.
The highly regarded new Army chief, Gen. Wimol Wongwanich, has vowed to keep soldiers out of politics but past comments that he was unaware of corruption in the armed services has cast doubts on how deeply he intends to reform the military.
Like many of the more honest officers, General Wimol is from a wealthy family. He is considered personally respectable, but his fellow "Class 5" corps of officers rose to dominance in part because of their success in collective business enterprises, according to Western military analysts. Class 5, which graduated from Thai military service academies in 1958, collectively owns among other companies a construction firm that is rumored to handle most new military building projects, the analysts say.
"They are engaged in all kinds of things that would send you straight to Leavenworth [prison in Kansas] if done in the US, but then they don't have the same kind of conflict-of-interest laws here," another foreign military officer says.
Instead, the Anand administration has been striking at the military's effective control of a whole range of state enterprises - including airports, the state-owned Thai International Airways, domestic and international communications, and a host of other basic services.
But the country's new prosperity has sparked an unprecedented weapons-procurement program where irregularities are common, analysts say.
"Just about every time there is a new commander, he scraps the previous guy's program and starts his own," says a Thai businessman knowledgeable about military affairs. As a result, the Thai military has a unusually diverse range of planes, tanks, and small arms, which taxes resources for maintenance.
"The problem is that the Thais put the cart before the horse in buying glitzy equipment, but largely ignoring doctrine, logistics, joint training, and so on," says a scathing critique of the Thai military published February in Jane's International Defense Review.
Neglect of basic responsibilities contributed to an embarrassing defeat to Laos during a two-year border conflict that began in 1987. "This shook them up but there was not much change since then.... [Military officers] are incapable of reforming themselves," a Western military analyst says.
During the Vietnam war, Thai troops earned a terrible reputation among American soldiers for field incompetence, stealing, abusing commissary privileges, and selling weapons on the Vietnamese black market.
The armed forces claim nearly 20 percent of the national budget - more than any other ministry except Education - but Thai critics complain that they get little value.
"It's not that it's so much money, it's that so much is wasted," says the Thai businessman. "You can say there is no such thing as a straight deal in the military; for everything there is a commission between 10 and 50 percent."
But with salaries considered modest compared to the Thai private sector, senior officers have long felt justified in supplementing their income with the aid of their positions.
Senior officers figure prominently on the boards of private golf courses, which have rapidly replaced rice fields in recent years. Proceeds from such businesses are shared several steps above and below in the military hierarchy in a web of client-patron relations that has long remained secret.
"In the very near future I think the debate [over the national defense budget] will be very heated, like in the United States," says Suchit Bunbongkarn, political science dean at Chulalongkorn University.
The strength of this debate will be tested during legislative elections Sept. 13. More progressive politicians have a solid grip in the capital but elsewhere politics is dominated by powerful provincial businessmen closely linked to the military.
An example of this power was seen several years ago, when an impending opposition no-confidence vote threatened former Prime Minister Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda. Senior military officers flew to visit a provincial powerbroker - the "godfather of the northeast" - known to control many of the area's parliament members.
"The next day, the exact number of [parliament members] needed to derail the motion changed their votes ... just by seeing one man," an Asian military analyst recalls.