In an interview last week, Thailand’s army chief said that the military was currently facing a “hybrid war” waged by its enemies. While his comments were lacking in specifics, the characterization nonetheless highlighted the broader evolution of the Thai military’s threat perception within its contemporary political and security environment.
As I have observed before in these pages, the development of Thailand’s military and its threat perception has occurred alongside amid the evolution of the political and security environment in Thailand. Key developments in that regard have included the struggle against communist insurgents during the Cold War, the intensification of the insurgency in the country’s south since the 2000s, and a pattern of occasional military interventions into the country’s politics, with the last one coming in May 2014. That coup first brought Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to power, which he retained in an election held earlier this year amid lingering concerns about the state of the country’s democratic development.
Last week, the military’s conception of the current political and security environment was in the headlines again with comments from Thailand’s army chief Apirat Kongsompong during an interview. Speaking to Reuters in his first sit-down interview since the new Thai government took office and just days after the recent Bangkok bombings, Apirat equated the current threat environment as being akin to “hybrid warfare,” with a threat level higher than during the military struggle against the communists, thanks to the addition of other components such as cyber warfare and fake news.
“It’s like cyber warfare. And when it combines with the (bombing) incident that happened last week, it’s like hybrid warfare,” Apirat told Reuters. “Now it is not just an open enemy like the old time… So we have to reorganize and improve our knowledge, and reorganize our units and many things to maintain the peace and national security,” he added.
For those familiar with the Thai military, Apirat’s statements come as no surprise. The struggle against the communists has long been ingrained in the Thai military’s thinking as a key reference point in the country’s security, and is compared to other contemporary challenges including the insurgency in the country’s south. And since coming to power following the 2014 coup, the military has placed an increasing emphasis on threats in the digital domain, including in the cyber realm, perceiving that its opponents are weaponizing these tools for political ends directed at undermining the post-2014 coup regime.
Apirat unsurprisingly did not delve into details about what exactly he meant by hybrid warfare, which, as I’ve discussed previously in these pages, is important because the use of the term without attendant definition and specificity has attracted some debate in policy and academic circles. He also declined to name specific suspects for the bomb attacks or propaganda efforts, preferring instead to talk more broadly about “some political parties born recently” that have had “propaganda directed to (people) when they were 16 or 17,” to “try to educate them with fake news.”
Given the current dynamics in Thailand, Apirat’s characterization of the threat environment and his other suggestions in the interview, including that he would “never let the army cross the line” when it comes to intervening in politics or staging another coup, will be subject to varying levels of scrutiny and skepticism. Nonetheless, his remarks offered a view into the heightened level of threat perception evident in the Thai military in its current political and security context.