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A Week in Review: July 17-23, 2010

Tanks for the memories...

The Thai military continued its long-established tradition last week. Unfortunately, it is a tradition of excessive spending on a variety of white elephants. Find out where our tax money is going this year in our This is Thailand week in review… 

Two aides of the red shirts’ former military advisor, Seh Daeng, were in the news last week. Having been arrested the week before, Surachai Thewarat is to be officially charged with terrorism after confessing to several violent crimes committed on behalf of the red shirts. Seh Daeng’s former driver is now also in custody.

On the political front, red and yellow leaders acted like adults for a change by deciding to withdraw defamation lawsuits against each other. After hours of negotiations between some of the leaders and their lawyers, Sondhi Limthongkul of the yellows and Veera Musikhapong, Natthawut Saikua, Jatuporn Prompan and Korkaew Pikulthong of the reds agreed to drop charges in eight pending cases.

However, the undoubted theme of the last week was military equipment and spending.

The army started off by donating twenty-five old 3OT 692 tanks to be sunk off the south-east coast of Thailand to form artificial reefs and help the local fishing industry. The Chinese-made tanks had been with the Thai army since 1987, which is quite an achievement considering that most things made in China fall apart after a few days.

Critics pointed out that concrete blocks would have been far less expensive and worked just as well and that it would have made more sense to recycle the tanks for scrap metal. However, these critics were missing the big picture. This was a nice gesture by the army. It was a deposit in the favour bank.

Sure enough, the very next day the army applied for an overdraft from the very same favour bank when it sought government approval to order 121 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) from a Ukrainian military supplier. With the ongoing problems in the South, not to mention the threat of further red shirt protests, APCs would seem like a reasonable investment, right? Well, apart from the fact that the same Ukrainian company has still not delivered 96 APCs that were ordered in 2007!

The holdup, apparently, is because the Ukrainian company planned to install German engines and transmissions in their vehicles but the German manufacturer refused to supply them because of the 2006 coup in Thailand. The Ukrainians then decided to order engines from a different German supplier and the transmissions from an American manufacturer instead, but they are still waiting to install these substitute components.

The new purchase will inevitably be approved to appease the army, although the Office of the Auditor-General is opposed to it, claiming that the Ukrainian company also failed to submit the necessary papers on time and that the vehicles are unsuitable for combat. So why order new APCs from a company that has failed to deliver an existing order?

It seems that the army has some leftover budget that General Anupong Paojinda wants to make sure doesn’t burn a hole in his pocket before he retires in September.

The APCs are, in fact, just part of a huge military shopping list. In addition to the 4.6 billion baht that the new APCs will cost, the army has asked for 10 billion baht to establish a new infantry division of 25,000 soldiers to be based in Chiang Mai, and 60 million baht to set up and equip a special task force to protect the prime minister and deputy prime minister.

This is on top of the 134 million baht requested for mini tavor rifles and 1.2 billion baht for 16 Enstrom 480B helicopters. It does not include the expensive order of three Black Hawk helicopters last year or the recent purchases of bomb detectors that do not detect bombs, or a reconnaissance airship that can not fly high enough to avoid being shot down by small arms fire.

So does Thailand really need all this new military investment? The APCs will certainly provide protection for troops in the South and in any further violent red shirt protests. The new Chiang Mai infantry division is intended to patrol the Laotian and Burmese borders, track down drug traffickers, and monitor red protests in the North. The new task force will protect the PM and deputy PM, primarily against red shirt supporters who have already launched two vicious attacks on vehicles in which they believed the PM was travelling as well as attacking his home with blood and excrement.

And in the South there seems to be no end to the trouble with people killed there on an almost daily basis.

Well, it seems as if the spending could be justified after all. The red shirts in the North and Northeast as well as the insurgents in the South continue to pose a clear and present danger.

But wouldn’t it be better to invest the military budget in trying to solve these problems instead of fighting them? Wouldn’t it make more sense to fight poverty rather than the poor?

Paul Snowdon – July 24, 2010

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