BANGKOK -- As Thailand prepares to return to civilian rule with elections in March, the army chief's jab at parties calling to shrink defense spending has put the spotlight on the military's political role moving forward.
Given the country's long history with coups, the recent controversy has fueled questions on whether civilian leaders are truly equipped to keep the military in check when they take back the reins for the first time since 2014.
The spat began when former Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, a prime minister candidate of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party, said that the military budget should be cut by 10% and the savings devoted to aiding young entrepreneurs. Other opposition parties have proposed eliminating the military draft lottery.
"They should listen to this tune -- 'Nak Phandin,'" army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong said in response, invoking a song used to rally right-wing groups against communism in the 1970s.
The English-language Bangkok Post described "Nak Phandin" as the "most hateful song in Thai political history," which was frequently used against democrats and revolutionaries by portraying them as the "Useless Weight on the Land," one of the title's common translations.
Many think the general's statement shows that he considers parties that advocate for military budget cuts or abolishing conscription as enemies of the state.
"As the army chief, he should have been politically neutral," Sudarat said. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who advocates for voluntary military service, also reacted by saying parties have the right to propose any policy, including those affecting the military.
Thailand's defense budget has continued to rise since the junta took over in 2014, comprising more than 7% of total expenditures, while the percentage of spending devoted to such areas as education has fallen.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who served as army chief from 2010 to 2014, has come to Gen. Apirat's defense by saying the parties should watch their words when campaigning.
Thailand transitioned from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in the revolution of 1932. The country has experienced 19 coups since then, with two as recently as 2006 and 2014 that overthrew governments allied with Thaksin.
The Thai military, unlike its American or Japanese counterparts, rejects theconcept of civilian control, said Surachart Bamrungsuk, a professor at Chulalongkorn University. He added that any civilian government would have difficulty changing that long-standing dynamic.