Published on August 21, 2007
But when it comes to planning for succession, they certainly have one of the poorest records.
That's why the annual military reshuffle more often than not develops into such a taxing situation that can sometimes result in comrades-in-arms being pitted against each other. And it should come as no surprise if we are hearing some rumblings among certain top generals who are gunning for the top Army post.
Because of the current extraordinary political situation, the question as to who will succeed General Sonthi Boonyaratglin as Army commander-in-chief has stirred up widespread speculation and even fears that a wrong decision could plunge the Army's leadership into a crisis. Tradition accords General Sonthi the prerogative to choose his successor.
The focus is on three potential candidates for the post, which will be left vacant when General Sonthi retires in October. But General Saprang Kalayanamitr, the outspoken assistant Army chief, has somehow portrayed himself as "the first among equals". However, General Anupong Paochinda, also assistant Army chief, and Army chief of staff General Montri Sangkasap, also consider themselves in the race but choose to keep their enthusiasm largely to themselves.
A few other generals outside the Army are also not being discounted. Supreme Commander General Soonsrang Niampradith and Defence permanent secretary General Winai Pattiyakul, the secretary-general of the Council for National Security (CNS), are touted as possible candidates in the event that General Sonthi cannot settle on one of the "Big Three" in the Army.
On the surface, it should be a good sign that there are so many candidates to choose from - a seeming confirmation that there is never a dearth of capable generals to run the Army. But things are not as simple as they may seem.
Conventional wisdom dictates that when it comes to choosing the chief executive of an organisation, you go for the most capable executive with the greatest vision and the best track record. But the Thai military has always had the tendency to defy conventional practices.
While the Thai armed forces in general are much more professional than they were decades ago, when military generals were throwing their weight around in politics, they are still a long way from institutionalising a transparent and accountable system of promotion and succession. That's why every annual military reshuffle is fraught with favouritism and cronyism.
The tussles that usually accompany appointments to top military posts reflect the deep-rooted patronage system that can sometimes turn ugly and bring factional conflicts into the open. Such a culture means that the best and most qualified generals do not always get to the top.
General Sonthi has yet to make his preference for his successor known. But it's generally understood that he needs someone who can guarantee him political cover after he retires and is no longer chairman of the all-powerful CNS. And in the event that he jumps into politics, General Sonthi probably wants to make sure that the Army is in the hands of someone he can trust. So the outgoing Army chief is most likely to fall back on the tradition of picking his successor from among his protégés. And again professionalism, competency and leadership potential will be secondary to camaraderie.
It shouldn't be a surprise if the next Army chief will have only one year to serve - long enough for him to attend all the welcome and farewell parties and parades but definitely too short to do anything meaningful. The top Army post is traditionally treated as a reward more than a commitment to work for the betterment of the Army.
For years there have been talks about modernising the armed forces. But don't expect anything to happen until they start changing the way they put people in at the top.