This piece was published in the Winter Issue Print Edition (Volume 11)
The installation of Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in 2014 by a military coup represented a major regression in the democratic aspirations encapsulated in Thailand’s 1997 Constitution. The NCPO was the military junta that directly controlled the Thai government from 2014 until 2019. In Thailand, military interference in its political process is not abnormal. The first representative government was inaugurated in 1932. Since then, constitutional order has been interrupted 18 times, with 12 disruptions being successful coups. The military effectively maintained control over the country’s politics through the NCPO until its official dissolution in 2019. In many countries, the military is a powerful political force. It provides guidance for foreign policy, determines a nation’s perceived and real strength in the world, and–at times–assumes direct control over national governments. What is less typical is strong military control over the day-to-day economic activities of a nation for a sustained period of time. Yet this interconnection between the military and economy is a defining characteristic of Thailand today. This paper will examine the structural and institutional interactions between the Royal Armed Forces and the Thai economy. Its principal finding comes from a case study of the Thai Military Bank (TMB), which demonstrates that the current military regime reconstructed its bank to positively influence economic development and reduce socioeconomic ills.
Overview of the Thai Military-Industrial Complex
The Thai junta’s power is now entrenched through both the 2017 Constitution, and the continuation of former General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s reign as Prime Minister after the resuming of elections in 2019; Prayuth is seen as the architect behind the 2014 coup. However, the political landscape remains contentious. The “Red Shirts,” supporters of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ousted in 2006, and anti-military groups continue to challenge the “Yellow Shirts,” supporters and members of the monarchy, military, judiciary, and bureaucracy. It is crucial to note that undergirding the military’s turbulent relationship with the Thai political system is the military’s persistent presence in Thailand’s economy.
Historically, the Thai military elite has had a crucial economic role. In 1940, the Thai government created the Thai Navigation, Co. to promote international shipping and trade as one of the three main domestic steamboat companies in the 20th century. Naval officers and the military Prime Minister served on the company’s board of directors. As of 2017, of the “56 active state enterprises, 42 had military members on their board of directors. They occupy close to 20% of all board membership.” These state-owned enterprises include the State Railway of Thailand, the Mass Rapid Transit Authority, and the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority. Military officer membership extends beyond military-related industries into a wide range of sectors. As a result, the military is not solely a purchaser in Thailand’s military-industrial complex; it is also involved in selling non-military services ranging from airport operations, radio, television, hotels, convenience stores, and recreational services, such as golf courses.
Furthermore, the Thai armed forces have a hand in the financial sector. The TMB Bank (previously known as the Thai Military Bank) was established to manage the financial wellbeing of officers in the 1960s. But, it soon became a crucial means for the military elite to manage and expand their financial gains outside of their payroll. The influence of the military can still be felt in the TMB Bank despite internal reforms following its mismanagement of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. In 2005, the bank was renamed and became a civilian institution, with the Ministry of Finance now being the largest shareholder instead of the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTARF). However, the head of the army still retains the privilege of serving on the Board of Directors.
It is outside the scope of this paper–which will look at the structural and institutionalized interactions between the Royal Armed Forces and the Thai economy–but it is still important to note the effects of illicit revenue streams. There are incidences of Thai military personnel profiting off of illegal arms-smuggling by accepting bribes at border crossings or actively selling firearms and military hardware. There is also the lucrative human trafficking trade. High-ranking military officials have been convicted by the Thai government for their profiteering on sexual exploitation and forced labor. In 2017, a group of 62 people–including army Lieutenant General Manas Kongpaen–were convicted for trafficking Rohingya Muslims. Illicit trade networks are not in the purview of this analysis because while pecuniary opportunism is endemic in border regions, military leadership does not endorse or systematically protect it. In fact, the sentence for Lieutenant General Kongpaen was tripled in length last October, two years after his conviction.
This paper investigates the role of the Royal Thai Armed Forces in Thailand’s economy, and the implications for the country’s economic development, which is especially salient due to political changes in Thailand like the official dissolution of the National Council for Peace and Order, and the resuming of national elections. Furthermore, the extent that the military guides the future of the Thai economy–both directly and indirectly–is currently in question. After a Sergeant Major committed a mass shooting over a disputed business deal in February 2020, the Thai Army Chief, Apirat Kongsompong, pledged a multitude of army reforms. These included transferring control of 160,000 hectares of commercial land to the Ministry of Finance, and a promise to “clean up” the army’s business activities, which could be worth up to an estimated one billion baht ($32 million as of February, 2020) in annual income. This may signal a devolution of economic power from the military to the public sphere, which is significant considering the recent re-emergence of popular protests in Thailand with economic grievances as a principal motivator.
Theories of Military-Economy Interactions
To analyze the interaction between the Royal Thai Armed Forces and economic development in Thailand, this paper will utilize existing theories of military expenditures from defense economics and the microeconomic theory of the firm for state-owned enterprises (SOEs). These two theoretical approaches’ suitability correlates to the unique political economy of Thailand. These theories compose the framework for a qualitative analysis utilizing secondary sources and open-source government and news reports on the Thai military and economy.
Defense economics is a sub-category of economics that analyzes domestic micro- and macro-economic effects of defense policies and industries. The application of traditional economic tools is modified by the unique market conditions a military and its industries operate within, such as a monopsony buyers and institutionalized monopolies. There are four statistically relevant variable categories econometric studies utilize to estimate the determinants of military expenditures in emerging economies: 1) indicators of economic development, such as income per capita and urban population share and growth; 2) budgetary and financial restraints derived from GDP growth, natural resource availability, and the growth of foreign exchanges; 3) political and military influence based on regime type, the utilization of state violence, the presence of war, and security interest groups such as arms suppliers; and 4) societal factors, including total population and the country’s demographics.
The theory of the firm is a fundamental microeconomic concept. It is rooted in neoclassical thinking that assumes a firm’s behavior and decisions will be profit-maximizing in a perfectly competitive environment. The theory of the firm for state-owned enterprises obfuscates the ownership structure of a firm. The incorporation of state-ownership reshapes the original model due to match policy priorities, creating utility for behaviors that deviate from profit-maximizing or cost-minimizing behavior. Furthermore, the behavior of the SOE is dependent on its structure and whether it is state-owned and state-controlled, state-owned and manager-controlled, or state-owned but private-controlled. The theory of the firm for state-owned enterprises recognizes the diversity in SOEs, which is pertinent in the context of Thailand, where the military government can control SOEs directly or indirectly.
The connection between SOE corporate governance and Thailand’s military government is also apparent when incorporating the principal-agent theory, an economic theory based on a hierarchical structure with a principal actor and a subordinate agent. The main relationship in this model is defined by a principal actor delegating limited decision-making powers to an agent with the assumption that the agent will then uphold the specific goals of the principal actor. The goal of this model is to determine decision-making factors and the extent of principal-agent cooperation. For the principal, decision-making factors include surveillance cost to ensure cohesive goals, resource commitments from the state, and opportunity costs in the market. Principal-agent cooperation is complicated by the variation in state actors interacting with an SOE, from regulators to political leaders.
The nexus of government policy, security considerations, and economic performance in the Thai political economy requires a multidimensional theoretical approach. Analysis of the intersection of defense economics and SOE behavior addresses the unique military-industrial complex in Thailand.
Thailand attracts scholarly attention due to its economic prominence as an emerging economy and regional power player. However, Thailand remains a neglected subject within the study of defense economics. As a field, defense-economic literature is largely defined by the Cold War. The National Bureau of Economic Research’s 1967 Issues in Defense Economics epitomized the popularization of the field amid the prolonged standoff between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Bloc. Economists studying defense economics primarily applied its theories to improve military production, alliance efficiency, the maximization of public spending, and strategies of deterrence. The scope of defense economics expanded in the Post-Cold War world to incorporate social, cultural, developmental, and legal considerations with economic and security implications.
Dr. Todd Sandler and Keith Hartley attempted to capture and consolidate the advances in defense economics in their 1995 Handbook of Defense Economics, addressing the unipolar world and peace dividends. This was then followed by their second volume in 2007, Handbook of Defense Economics: Defense in a Globalized World, which considered the issues of terrorism, globalization, and the role of the military in the context of decreasing interstate wars. In the second volume, Dr. Martin C. Mcguire recognizes in his chapter that both the field of defense economics and global security concerns are in a state of transition. The structure of economic and security incentives in rising powers–particularly in Asia–needs to be researched given the emerging multipolar world. Moving forward, “defense economics can no longer represent merely effective self-serving defense resource allocations by Western countries.”
There is considerable research on the military’s economic ventures and influence in the Thai economy. This is in part because Thailand is an ASEAN-4 nation alongside Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippines. All are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who have experienced high export-driven growth and are now transitioning to middle-term growth. ASEAN-4 is a popular grouping because they operate within the same ASEAN trade environment. There are also extensive economic analyses on the Thai economy because it is one of the few countries that experienced a military coup in the 21st century, and is by far the wealthiest military regime in the world.
Case Study: The TMB Bank
The Thai Military Bank (now renamed the TMB Bank) is a strong example of how the Thai Military influences the economy. The TMB Bank was originally established in 1957 under General Sarit Thanarat’s military regime. At the time, General Thanarat and Police General Phao Siyanon were in a power struggle. The strategic placement of supporters was a key mechanism for both military leaders to garner support and compete for political influence. The TMB Bank evolved into the Thai military’s ‘cash cow’ by dominating commercial banking, with the support of the military regime, despite being a market-averse institution that did not trust market mechanisms alone to produce desirable outcomes. The TMB, living up to its namesake, primarily served the interests of Thai military. It provided loans to dummy companies owned by officers, offering a discrete means to hide capital from the public.
Near the turn of the century, the TMB Bank was a medium-sized commercial bank. But, due to poor loan practices and its military orientation, it was unprepared for the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. By 1998, the bank’s total assets shrunk by almost 10%. In the aftermath of the crisis, military and government leadership pledged to reduce the military’s direct hand in the economy. This included the Thai military reducing its stake in the TMB Bank from 29% to 12%. The bank’s connection to the military allowed it to escape the serious reforms and possible nationalization that other banks faced.
TMB Bank eventually underwent internal reforms to survive in the 21st century. In one sense, the bank’s character noticeably changed after the Asian Financial Crisis. It diversified its shareholders by selling shares to foreign investors, such as the Dutch ING Bank in 2007. Furthermore, its principal shareholder shifted from the Royal Thai Army to the Ministry of Finance after it was bailed out following the financial crisis. However, the Thai Military is still a noteworthy top ten shareholder in the TMB Bank. And, the bank remains at the center of political developments. It is an important member of the Thai Bankers Association, which publicly called for the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra prior to the 2014 coup. The current Prime Minister and architect of the coup, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, was also a TMB Bank board member before resigning after the successful installation of the NCPO.
The theories of defense economics and “the firm” for state-owned enterprises illuminates the new role of the TMB Bank and military political-economic influence in the Thai economy. Economic development indicators, budgetary and financial constraints, political-military influence, and demographic trends heavily determined the deployment of the junta’s expenditures. The Thai economy faces increasingly unequal growth, with Thailand having the widest income disparity in ASEAN and a 2019 GINI Index of 0.846. The financial resources of the TMB Bank are relatively limited, compared to other Thai banks operating in the competitive domestic financial market. Unlike in neighboring ASEAN countries, Thailand’s financial sector has not consolidated and remains fragmented. However, the bank maintains an advantage because of its tight connection to the military. Furthermore, the current TMB Bank chair, Boontuck Wungcharoen, possesses strong ties to the junta. Lastly, Thailand is facing a unique demographic problem of an aging working population in a still developing economy. More than a quarter of the population will be over the age of 60 by 2030. Expectations are low for future retirement savings to support the baby bust.
Using these considerations in defense economics calculus, barring a new pressing security crisis, Thailand’s military can reasonably be expected to apply resources to exigent socioeconomic issues. This matches historical expenditures trends in Thailand where the military, when in control, voluntarily directs public funds to combat economic issues at the expense of military funding. An examination of the TMB Bank’s shareholder percentages further reinforces this trend. Following the military coup in 2014, the Royal Thai Army’s financial investments in the TMB Bank did not increase substantially. Viewing the TMB Bank as an agent of the government (with the Ministry of Finance and the Royal Thai Army being two of the top ten shareholders), there does not appear to be strictly a financial-gain objective for military personnel. There are significant foreign shareholders, but domestic shareholders have disproportionate control over bank operations due to restructuring following the Asian Financial Crisis and influence from the financial authority. The military regime is in an opportune position to enrich its officers through the government, but there is no financial movement, suggesting that the TMB Bank is returning to its older practice of abetting illicit gains. In fact, the 2014 coup corresponded with a decline in the military’s share in the bank. Overall, the Royal Thai Army and the Ministry of Finance’s share has since remained relatively stable under NCPO control.
The TMB Bank’s recent institutional objectives, evaluated with respect to the theory of the firm for state-owned enterprises, reveal that the organization is still not a completely profit-oriented firm. Rather, it appears that in the principal-agent relationship, the military government (principal) seeks to positively influence the economy, using the bank (agent) to lead financial consolidation and a deposit-oriented banking strategy.
Currently, the bank is merging with the unlisted Thanachart Capital (TCAP). The final result in 2021 will be a bank with assets totaling “THB 1.9 Trillion, with over 10 million customers, and will be ranked as the sixth-largest bank in the Thai commercial bank industry.” A key economic goal of the Thai military government is to consolidate the banking industry to become competitive with neighboring ASEAN banks. While this merger will only produce Thailand’s sixth-largest bank, it is the first banking merger and acquisition in six years and the second-largest in the country’s history. It is a risky venture, but the Ministry of Finance Deputy Permanent Secretary Chumpol Rimsakorn stated that “this merger is in line with the government’s policy to promote consolidation in the financial sector to enhance the scale and improve market position.” In the mindset of the Thai government, TMB Bank’s merger will hopefully encourage Thailand’s larger privately run banks to consider merging as well.
As per the theory of the firm for state-owned enterprises, the realization of the principal’s goals is dependent on the ability to surveil the agent, provide resources, or reconfigure opportunity costs. The military government directly encouraged this merger through incentives passed last year by Thailand’s Board of Investment. Furthermore, the Ministry of Finance’s substantial shares in the TMB Bank allow it to surveil the merger and provide input in the direction of the bank. The Ministry of Finance is raising capital to prevent share dilution and maintain its dominant position among the bank’s shareholders. The head of the army also still serves on the TMB Bank Board of Directors. In the first quarter of 2020, the integration of TMB Bank and TCAP was proceeding on schedule for 2021.
Moreover, the Thai government appears to be supporting the TMB Bank’s deposit-oriented banking strategy. The manifestation of unequal economic growth and an unprepared generation of retirees is low deposits among Thai citizens. A third of Thais had less than 500 baht (~$15 USD) in their bank account despite an average yearly disposable income of 8,312,890 baht (~$26,000 USD) in the same year as the study. This is only a piece of the economic inequality in Thailand. However, the bank’s deposit-based strategy aims to directly address this issue. A deposit-oriented strategy means the bank will focus on retail consumers and small-enterprises, rather than making dividends from asset acquisition. As a result, the bank is not prioritizing lucrative higher-risk ventures. Instead, it is offering attractive interest rates for savings accounts, lowering their costs to match the larger Thai banks. This approach is distinct from the risky–and often fraudulent–practices used prior to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. In our model, this can be seen as a reconfiguration of opportunity cost since the TMB Bank is no longer encouraged by shareholders (e.g.the Ministry of Finance and the Royal Thai Army) to embrace moral hazards. Rather, the bank is fulfilling its company’s mission statement to “Make the Difference.”
Thailand’s history of military influence in the economy continued under the National Council for Peace and Order. This influence will likely persist through the NCPO’s dissolution due to the entrenched network of military officers in Thai state-owned enterprises. Furthermore, the NCPO installed a legal and economic framework that will continue to guide Thailand’s development. This paper worked to further explore the Thai military-industrial complex, melding defense economics for an emerging economy with the theory of the firm for state-owned enterprises. At this nexus of military governance and economic management, the Thai military is able to assist–or exploit–the Thai economy through its SOEs as per the country’s security needs. The Thai military can operate SOEs in a non-optimal manner to serve its agenda through informal and formal control of SOEs boards, supportive government policies, or by reconfiguring opportunity costs. In the case of the TMB Bank, the military created, preserved, and reconstituted the institution based on the current goals of the Thai military and economic needs of Thailand.
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 Janet Xuanli Liao, “The Chinese government and the National Oil Companies (NOCs): Who is the Principal?” in Managing China’s Energy Sector: Between the Market and the State ed. T. Hongyi Lai and Malcolm Warner (New York: Routledge, 2016), 4.
 Younes Belfellah, “The State Owned Enterprise Governance: Literature Review and State Roles Propositions,” Association Internationale de Management Stratégique, June, 2016, 16.
 Ibid, 5.
 Roland N. McKean, Issues in Defense Economics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), ix-x.
 Martin C. Mcguire, “Concepts of Defense Economics for the 21st Century,” Defence and Peace Economics 11, no. 1 (January 2000): 17-18.
 Todd Sandler and Keith Hartley, “Defense in a Globalized World: An Introduction,” 611-614.
 Martin C. McGuire, “Economics of Defense in a Globalized World” in the Handbook of Defense Economics: Defense in a Globalized World, Vol. 2, edited by Todd Sandler and Keith Hartley (Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Co., 2007), 625.
 “ASEAN-4,” International Monetary Foundation: Finance & Development, Vol. 3, No. 2, June, 2006.
 Satoru Kumagai, “The Middle-Income Trap in the ASEAN-4 Countries from the Trade Structure Viewpoint” in Emerging States at the Crossroads, ed. Keiichi Tsunekawa and Yasuyuki Todo (Singapore: Springer, 2019), 49.
 Prajak Kongkirati and Veerayooth Kanchoochat, “The Prayuth Regime: Embedded Military and Hierarchical Capitalism in Thailand,” Trans -Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia, Vol. 6, No. 2, July, 2018.
 Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat, “Arch-Royalist Rent: The Political Economy of the Military in Thailand,” 70-71.
 Pichai Kouwsomran, “The Military Regime: A Case Study of Political Clientelism in Thailand from 1947 to 1963” (PhD thesis, McMaster University, 1984), 124-126.
 Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat, “Arch-Royalist Rent: The Political Economy of the Military in Thailand,” 70-71; George L. Harris et al., U.S. Army Area Handbook for Thailand (Washington D.C.: American University, 1963), 445-446
 Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat, “Theorizing Khaki Capital: The Political Economy of Security” in Khaki Capital: The Political Economy of the Military in Southeast Asia, ed. by Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat. (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, 2017), 9.
 Tai Ming Cheung, China’s Entrepreneurial Army (London: Oxford University Press, 2001), 267.
 Ukrist Pathmanand, “Globalization and Democratic Development in Thailand: The New Path of the Military, Private Sector, and Civil Society,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 23, no. 1 (April 2001): 27.
 Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat, “Arch-Royalist Rent: The Political Economy of the Military in Thailand,” 70; “Asia: Thailand: Bank Bailout,” Bloomberg News, July 26, 2003.
 Veerayooth Kanchoochat, “Reign-Seeking and the Rise of the Unelected in Thailand,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 46, no. 3 (March 2016): 486.
 Wassana Nanuam, “Coup Leader Quits TMB Board,” Bangkok Post, June 26, 2014.
 Sheith Khidhir, “”Growing Gap between Richest and Poorest Thais,” ASEAN Post, October 25, 2019. https://theaseanpost.com/article/growing-gap-between-richest-and-poorest-thais; Camilo Maldonado, “Credit Suisse: Top 1% Own Nearly 50% Of Global Wealth And China’s Wealthy Now Outnumber America’s,” Forbes, October 23, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/camilomaldonado/2019/10/23/credit-suisse-top-1-own-nearly-50-of-global-wealth-and-chinas-wealthy-now-outnumber-americas/#359fd5532ede
 Ben Davies, “Thai Banking: Middleweight Merger Won’t Make Heavyweight Hitter,” Asia Money, September 27, 2019. https://www.euromoney.com/article/b1hbmypwk8cwr4/thai-banking-middleweight-merger-wont-make-heavyweight-hitter
 Eric Ellies, “Thailand’s Apisak Tells Foreign Banks They Can’t Compete,” Euromoney, October 6, 2015, https://www.euromoney.com/article/b12km4jdzstlk1/thailands-apisak-tells-foreign-banks-they-cant-compete; Mr. Wungcharoen was also the chairman of the Thai Bankers’ Association at the time of the 2014 coup when the organization supported the ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. See: “Thai Coup Has Little Effect on Economic Growth,” Today, June 3, 2014, https://www.todayonline.com/world/asia/thai-coup-has-little-effect-economic-growth
 Margo Towie, Jason Clenfield and Hannah Dormido, “Thailand Has a Developing Economy and a Big First World Problem,” Bloomberg, July 25, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2019-thailand-baby-bust/
 Gregory Vincent Raymond, Thai Military Power: A Culture of Strategic Accommodation (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2017), 219.
 Wanxue Lu and Fumiharu Mieno, “Impact of Foreign Entry into the Banking Sector: The Case of Thailand in 1999–2014,” Pacific-Basin Finance Journal 64, (December 2020): 3.
 “TMB Bank, Thanachart to Create Thailand’s Sixth-Largest Lender,” Reuters, August 8, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/thanachart-bank-ma-tmb-bank/update-1-tmb-bank-thanachart-to-create-thailands-6th-largest-lender-idUSL4N2551QK
 “Information Memorandum on Business Restructuring and Merger Plan between Thanachart Bank Public Company Limited and TMB Bank Public Company Limited,” Thanachart Bank Public Company Limited, September 23, 2019, 1.
 Davies, “Thai Banking: Middleweight Merger Won’t Make Heavyweight Hitter.”
 “TMB Bank, Thanachart to Create Thailand’s Sixth-Largest Lender.”
 “How Mergers are Changing Thailand’s Banking Sector,” Oxford Business Group, April 24, 2019, https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/news/how-mergers-are-changing-thailand%E2%80%99s-banking-sector
 “Khaki Capitalism,” Economist, December 3, 2011, https://www.economist.com/business/2011/12/03/khaki-capitalism; Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat, “Arch-Royalist Rent: The Political Economy of the Military in Thailand,” 72.
 “TMB Announced 1Q20 Operating Results,” TMB Bank, April 20, 2020, https://www.tmbbank.com/en/newsroom/news/pr/view/financial-results-Q1-20.html
 Boris Sullivan, “33% of Thais Have Less Than 500 Baht on Their Bank Account,” Thailand Business News, December 23, 2019, https://www.thailand-business-news.com/banking/77384-33-of-thais-have-less-than-500-baht-on-their-bank-account.html; “Thailand Households Disposable Income,” Trading Economics, 2020, https://tradingeconomics.com/thailand/disposable-personal-income
 “Investor Presentation – TMB 5-Year Plan,” TMB Bank, 2017, 18, https://media.tmbbank.com//uploads/ir_fininfo_present/file/media/402_file_th.pdf?180313024027
 “Investor Presentation,” TMB Bank, May, 2014, 5, https://media.tmbbank.com//uploads/ir_fininfo_present/file/media/83_file_th_140714055251.pdf