13 June 2024

Armed with little or no background in military or security affairs, Sutin Klungsang faces huge challenges ahead as the newly appointed defense minister.

However, security analysts reckon his ability to manage the armed forces will be enhanced by the respected military men among his advisers, including two retired Army generals who previously served as chiefs of the National Security Council (NSC).

Sutin’s appointment as defense minister marks a new chapter in Thai politics, notes Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University.

Sutin, a deputy leader of the biggest coalition party, Pheu Thai, is Thailand’s sixth civilian defense minister but the first who does not double as prime minister.

Wanwichit Boonprong

Wanwichit dismissed criticism that Sutin’s lack of military experience would undermine his performance at the Defense Ministry, explaining that he had gathered a strong team of advisors who could reduce his workload and guide him safely past potential pitfalls.

Strong team of advisers

The new defense minister is expected to appoint General Natthapon Nakpanich as his secretary and General Somsak Roongsita as one of his advisors. Both men are former NSC secretaries-general and were key members of the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) under General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government.

Natthapon, a former Army deputy chief who served as the CCSA’s operations director, had been tipped for the job of defense minister. He was viewed as a trusted troubleshooter for Prayut during the previous administration.

Natthapon Nakpanich

Sutin’s team of advisors also features a dozen more people with security backgrounds, according to media reports. Most of them are retired generals from the armed forces or the police force.

Sutin has also called on two former defense ministers and an ex-prime minister with military backgrounds to seek their advice and blessings on his new job. He met ex-PM General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and former defense ministers General Thammarak Isarangkura na Ayudhaya and ACM Sukampol Suwannathat separately at their homes.

Sixth civilian defense minister

Sutin, 62, is the sixth civilian to serve as Thailand’s defense minister, but the first to hold the post without simultaneously serving as prime minister.

The five civilian defense ministers-cum-PMs were MR Seni Pramoj, Chuan Leekpai, Somchai Wongsawat, Samak Sundaravej, and Yingluck Shinawatra.

There have been 42 defense ministers since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Most of them were retired military commanders who had held the rank of Army general, including Sutin’s immediate predecessor General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who also doubled as prime minister.

Sutin graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in education from Mahasarakham University and a doctorate from Magadh University in India.

Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang

He entered politics in 2001, elected as an MP under the Thai Rak Thai banner for his home province of Maha Sarakham. The party was founded and led by Thaksin Shinawatra, who served as prime minister between February 2001 and September 2006, when his government was ousted by a military coup. After Thai Rak Thai was dissolved by court order, Sutin became affiliated with its successors, People Power and now Pheu Thai – both considered to be proxy parties of Thaksin.

Thaksin returned to Thailand on August 22 after 15 years of self-imposed exile overseas and is currently serving a commuted jail sentence stemming from his time as PM. All three of his proxy prime ministers – Samak, Somchai, and Yingluck – held the defense minister’s post concurrently.

‘A positive development’

According to analyst Wanwichit, Sutin’s appointment as defense minister “should be a good thing” for the new government and the Ministry of Defense.

Sutin, who taught physically challenged children for many years, had been tipped to become education minister in the current Cabinet.

“The appointment of a civilian like Sutin as defense minister is a positive development. Defense ministers with military backgrounds tend to favor their [military academy] cohorts when it comes to promotion,” said Wanwichit, an expert on security affairs.

He acknowledged that civilian defense ministers could seek “favors” from armed force chiefs over certain high-ranking promotions, but said they rarely block appointments of military commanders that are proposed by the armed forces.

“They often focus on budget supervisory posts such as Defense Ministry permanent secretary, and it is not difficult to reach a compromise there,” Wanwichit said.

Three challenges for Sutin

The analyst identified three major challenges ahead for the new defense minister: curbing military expenditure, reforming conscription, and reviving peace talks with separatists in the deep South.

Wanwichit said that as an opposition party during the previous government’s tenure, Pheu Thai strongly opposed plans to purchase expensive military hardware including Chinese submarines and US-made F-35 jet fighters. It will be interesting to see if the party changes that stance now that it is in power, he added.

Regarding Sutin’s second challenge, Pheu Thai promised voters in May’s election that it would abolish annual conscription and adopt voluntary military service if elected to power. The analyst expressed doubt that the party would stick to this pledge once Sutin takes up his post as defense minister.

The third challenge involves the insurgency and conflict that has plagued the Muslim-majority southern border region for decades. Under the Yingluck government, Thai authorities held peace talks with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatist group, whose name means “National Revolutionary Front”.

Wanwichit said the new defense minister will have to decide whether the peace talks should be revived to meet the government’s goal of ending violence and restoring peace in the deep South by 2027.

Issue of transparency

He also pointed to the issue of controversy surrounding the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) and other security agencies responsible for tackling the insurgency. Opposition MPs last year accused these agencies of turning a blind eye to so-called “ghost” recruits, or personnel allegedly assigned to posts in the deep South while never actually setting foot in the region but benefitting from the “risk allowances”.

Wanwichit said that if the new defense minister is brave enough to address this issue of illicit expenditure, he would earn much praise.

“I don’t think the armed forces would oppose him, as they would benefit from more transparency,” he said.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk