Inside the RTNA

    January 7, 2003

The Honour Guard marks special occasions.— PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ROYAL THAI NAVAL ACADEMY

Creating an elite for peace in a changing world, Story and pictures by ROBERT GUZMAN

He doesn’t yet realize. A 16-year-old who’s had the fortitude to overcome the obstacles placed before admittance into the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School might be forgiven for thinking the worst is over. He’s passed a barrage of three-hour entrance exams— math, physics, chemistry, plus hour-long tests of English and Thai. He’ll be evaluated psychologically, probed by a doctor, interviewed by a committee and checked out by security, in addition to a round of fitness tests.

Nothing overly strenuous here though— the usual 1,500-meter run, 100-meter dash, 13 chin-ups, 50 pushups, 50-meter swim – a moderately athletic high school student could do it. They’re not looking for young Rambos. "I don’t think we’re as hard on our students as the other academies are," says Lt. Prakit Rumpungkun, professor of Marine Engineering and himself a graduate of the Naval Academy. "We look first at intellectual ability. The equaliser comes when they do their training cruises."

The Royal Thai Navy is aware that operating a modern fleet rests on its ability to turn out navigators and engineers. The English, the physical strengthening, the military etiquette can all come later. For now, the pre-cadet and the RTN seem happy to have found each other. At 16, this young man is locked in a relationship that might last through retirement and old age pension.

The inductee is now part of an elite group. He can glory for a while at being selected from over 15,000 candidates, competing for 120 slots, though a handful of those bypassed will fill a similar number of openings in one of the other branches.

A special feature of the pre-cadet programmeme is that it is conjointly operated by the Thai Army, Navy, Airforce and Police. Some view the system as over-competitive, but most government strategists feel the teenage networking that takes place is a rare chance for the future leaders of all the armed forces to mix. This cohesion is no small concern in a new democracy where it is important for key players in government to agree on basic issues, particularly the preservation of democracy.

A question of balance

Cadets proceed to classes and appointments in precise military formation.

Completing the two-year prep-school programme, a pre-cadet is guaranteed a place in the Naval Academy. Ninety-eight percent go on to finish the five-year Bachelor of Engineering programme, becoming commissioned with the rank of Ensign. But this is all seven years away.

For the new cadet, the comforts of guaranteed housing, adequate messing, a bit of spending money and having something to do are shadowed by the sobering thought that the normal life of a teenager is closed to him. The acne, partying, music and girlfriends that preoccupy young civilians are now lesser concerns as he comes to grips with centuries-old tactics devised by navies everywhere to instill leadership and seamanship skills in raw recruits.

Navies are the most exceptional of the armed forces. If you’re gregarious, but require your "space" it’s not for you. "Navy people have a unique personality," explains the scholarly Captain Thongbai Dhiranandankura, a former Buddhist monk, trained in India and England, now associate professor of Philosophy and International Relations. "Our lifestyles and our natures make navy people more reserved. I believe we are also more polite." At armed forces get-togethers, Navy personnel seem almost taciturn by comparison.

Then there’s the sea. Fifth-year cadet Saisuwan, 23, from Chonburi applied because he loves it. He’d better. Cadets become certified SCUBA divers during third year – but that’s fun. The annual training cruises on one of the Navy’s nearly 200 vessels are not. "It’s for 45 days, there’s always something to do" (read hard work), says second-year cadet "Johnny". "It’s hot and you get one shower a week,"an unheard of torture for all the cadets. "We come off those ships so dirty and stinking, no one will come near us," says Lt. Prakit Rumpungkun. Final cruise, 60 days long, made just before graduation, is overseas. Cadets visit places like India, Japan or Indonesia. This year’s destination, Australia.

More than any other service branch, you lose your privacy. "It was the most difficult part of my adjustment, sometimes I wanted to cry," sighs the Lieutenant. Dr. Prakit represents an extraordinary type of educator. He speaks elegant English and has a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Florida. A high percentage of the 200-member faculty has taken advantage of one of the Navy’s best perks — scholarships for follow-on training abroad. Penn State, Michigan, Rhode Island, Purdue, Wisconsin, Nebraska, US Naval Academy at Annapolis, are a few of these guys’ alma maters.

And the ladies’ too — 20 percent of the faculty are women in an institution that trains no women. Not all agree with this policy. "I don’t see why there shouldn’t be women cadettes," says Lt. Commander Savapak Sudthichai, English instructor. "We should be able to serve aboard ships." How about an all female crew? "Great," says the Commander. "Women should have equal opportunity."

With their qualifications and experience, instructors could earn much more in the private sector. What’s the reward? "First, I love teaching," says Captain Kobkun Chaiyakun, English instructor, who has been at her post 20-plus years. Thank goodness for that. Other than a modest retirement pension and housing if they need it, there have to be alternate reasons for staying on.

Veteran teacher Theresa Miller, a transplanted Bostonian, agrees. "The salary is not the big attraction," admits Theresa, who has also been at her desk for 20 years. "But the job is fun, the students are polite, the staff is helpful. It’s just so friendly here." She is currently one of only two foreigners working on base. Otherwise, the Naval Academy is a domestic affair – all other employees are Thai.

A Day in the Life

From the moment he signs on the dotted line, 90 percent of a cadet’s life is not his. He is told what time to wake up — that’s 0530 hours — for the better part of the next decade, excepting weekends and annual three-week home leave. He is told when and what to eat. It’s usually Thai food and they say they get enough of it. Unbelievable — an institution where the inmates don’t complain about the food. One reason — cadets are responsible for their own messing! Student management teams plan the budget, design monthly menus and make daily purchasing trips to the Samut Prakan market.

He is told how to dress — but no problem here. If styles on the outside are any gauge, cadets are high fashion. For some, good-looking uniforms were a reason for applying. After months of physical training and controlled diets, cadets look dashing, especially in "dress whites", mandatory for weekend leaves. The Navy generously supplies 14 uniforms, one for every occasion. It’s good PR — and keeping a uniform white requires some pretty defined behavior.

Should they ever decide on another career, the Thai film industry would be happy to talk to many. That’s unlikely, though. Cadets commit themselves for ten years after graduation. Breaking this contract means a hefty reimbursement fee.

In any training programme, cadets march and run miles. The distinction here is that boot camp meets university. They may be smartly dressed, wear spit-polished shoes and carry briefcases, but the 644 trainees proceed to and from classes by precision marching or jogging. There’s no milling around.

Public behavior is discreet — precious moments of free time are spent around a picnic table under a pradue, known here as the "navy tree". "They must call it that because all the blooms come out and fall off at the same time," says Captain Chunida Dechkum. The analogy— "Sailors ship out together and die together if the ship goes down," says this English instructor.

Courtesy is universal. "The first thing we are all taught to do here is greet people," says Captain Kasinee Jiamonpakit, head of Humanities. "Cadets are required to saysawadeekrap to everyone they meet, including roommates in the morning. It’s a tradition I haven’t seen in the other academies."

Housing presents challenges. Students share comfortable four-bed rooms — there are no barracks — but the Navy has come up with a system for placing discipline and etiquette on a fast track. Alone among the armed forces, naval cadets are housed hierarchically. A room is shared by a senior, a junior, a sophomore and a freshman. Doesn’t this invite abuse? "Not really," says Lt. Prakit, who remembers his own experience vividly. "Remember, aboard ship, billeting is so tight that you may have to sleep next to your commanding officer." Could this happen in the army or air force? "Never," says Prakit, "so you’d better get used to living with your boss."

Misuse of the system has been known — a senior may require a roommate to do his homework or perform some personal service — but he finds his authority limited by the grapevine. If cadet opinion decides an individual is abu

sing his rank, he must decide whether continuing the practice is worth a shredded reputation. Leadership is an acquired skill.

Academically, weapons training, naval strategies and shiphandling are important, but cadets study dozens of subjects, many non-technical. Course completion requirements seem reasonable. They need minimum training scores ranging from 60-65 percent. Teaching styles reveal flexibility, perhaps because in the Navy, on-the-job-training is so important. "I feel sorry for first and second-year students," says an instructor. "Their lives are so tough, I have to be a bit lenient with them. By third-year, it’s much easier."

Many feel that a stricter programme would make the cadets too aggressive. To counter this, they are allowed to go to their families on weekends, wearing their dress whites, of course, carrying the Navy mystique to distant provinces.

A Region in Flux

In Thailand as in most of Asia, the tradition of maintaining a navy is an import, as is the training system. When naval powers Britain and France began encroaching on Thai territory in the 19th century, King Chulalongkorn realised that Thailand was on the verge of colonisation. In an emergency move in1898, the king donated his own royal yacht and three aging gunboats to house and train the first Thai navy. Five years later, the Naval Academy was officially opened in a donated palace in Thonburi.

No need to search for a methodology. The apprentice system, where adolescents were given naval training, worked fine in 19th century England. A humanised version of it was adapted for Thailand, in the form of the pre-cadet school, where young people are given the opportunity to train and study. No student undergoes the difficult 45-day training cruise phase until sophomore year, however.

The fledgling Navy practiced its skills in 1941, when it repulsed a seven-ship French fleet in the Gulf of Thailand. The defending Thonburi, was knocked out of commission — but not before inflicting huge damage on the French flagship.Thonburi’s superstructure was preserved and enshrined in a land monument on the present campus of the Naval Academy, which opened in Samut Prakan in 1952.

Given the external threats to Thailand over the last two centuries, it’s not surprising the military was forced to assume a prominent role in government. The Navy was never a main contender in the forces that influenced government, but nonetheless often plays a pivotal role. "We have the lowest budget of all branches of the armed forces," says Lt Commander Savapak, "but we like to think we do more with less."

She may have a point. Interim governments, mediation teams, foreign policy have often had RTN input. The Navy, for example, opposed the alliance with Japan in WWII and helped develop the Free Thai resistance movement. Recently, the Sri Lankans held peace talks with the Tamils at the Sattahip naval facility.

By the 1970s, Thais began calling for more democracy. In the resulting upheaval, the Navy unwittingly found itself in a conciliatory position. When violence broke out during a student demonstration, protesters were forced into the Chao Phraya, where many drowned. There would have been more fatalities if the RTN had not been patrolling the area. Seeing the floundering people, they did what all navies are trained to do— search and rescue. On another occasion, the gates of Navy headquarters were thrown open to people fleeing the violence. Ironically, simply by doing its job, the RTN scored a major media and public relations coup, inspiring loyalty and respect for the military from the very people who were protesting!

The Rewards

The annual "Three Anchors Night" allows cadets to show off their social skills. Ballroom dancing is one of the numerous extracurricular clubs open to students.

Today, as in the past, the four Armed Forces Academies serve as an escape valve, enabling needy students to acquire a career. The vast majority are from provincial families of modest economic resources. According to Dr Praon Sunthornwipat, head of the RTNA Statistics Division, 50 percent come from households earning less than 30,000 baht monthly, not enough to finance a university education. Without this outlet, a profession would be out of the question for some deserving students.

They muster five times a day, watch an hour of TV and are confined to campus Monday to Friday. Over a long period of their lives, bedtime is 10pm. Waking moments are accounted for, private moments observed. With all these restrictions, is life at the Academy easy or difficult? "Easyyyyyy!" roars a third-year class, with plenty of irony. We might need to ask here why they do it. More to the point, how do they do it?

For a new instructor, the job is, at first, a handful and a challenge. In many ways, the academic atmosphere is more like an American liberal arts college. Each instructor decides classroom policy, including attendance, writes his own programme of instruction, formulates his own grading system, produces training aids, writes quizzes, decides evaluation methods.

There are typically 104 cadets on a teacher’s roster, some occasionally too exhausted by their training to stay awake. This can result in an annoying classroom moment or two — it is not Ann Arbor. But when 25 Asian students snap to attention when you begin your class to wish you a big, bright, "Good morning, Teacher," you feel you might be in the right place at the right time.

"Thank-you, Teacher."

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Last modified: January 6, 2003


" The Royal Thai Naval Academy is a professional, undergradute training institution for the Royal Thai Navy "