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A Week in Review: July 23-29, 2011

Jatuporn Prompan yesterday

The Thai news was all about helicopters, airplanes and hot-air balloons last week. It seems they are all grounded but for different reasons. Find out why here…

In response to three fatal helicopter crashes in the same area of the Thai-Burmese border over a space of 8 days, the Thai army has taken decisive action.

However, it hasn’t taken accountability or launched an inquiry into the causes of the three crashes as you might expect. It has chosen instead to demand more tax payers' money from the government to buy 36 new helicopters.

Following the initial crash of a Bell HU-1 "Huey" helicopter in which 5 Thai soldiers died, a Black Hawk and a Bell 212 also went down while on subsequent rescue missions, resulting in a total of 17 deaths with only 1 survivor from the three crashes.

The initial army response was to blame the incidents on bad weather. While unusually strong updrafts in the mountainous region could well have played a part in the crashes, losing three helicopters and 17 lives in the space of 8 days is nothing short of criminal negligence.

In a developed country, an inquiry would be ordered, someone in a high-ranking position of authority would be held accountable, and appropriate steps would be taken in an effort to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. But this is Thailand.

Changing tack from blaming bad weather to citing outdated machines, Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha is set to propose the purchase of 36 new Bell 212 helicopters as a panacea solution.

Although Thailand’s Hueys have been in service for 3 decades and are at the end of their lifespan, the Black Hawk can hardly be accused of being an old or obsolete machine, while Gen Prayuth's preferred choice of the Bell 212 has been in service almost as long as its stablemate the Huey.

Nevertheless, Gen Prayuth is likely to press ahead with the purchase order. And with Thailand’s military holding such an unhealthy sway of power, it is likely that he will get what he asks for.

At least the general seems to have rediscovered his sense of humour following his outbursts ahead of the recent elections. “Our country does not have a big [military] budget," he joked, obviously overlooking the recently acquired submarines, armoured personnel carriers, jet fighters, airships and bomb detectors.

Of course, Thailand’s military budget could be drastically reduced if it wasn’t so top heavy with generals. Compared to the USA, which has a population of 310 million, approximately 3 million full-time and reserve military personnel, and just 302 generals, Thailand, with a population of 55 million, boasts an amazing tally of 550 generals. In contrast, the UK, with a similar population and land mass to Thailand, has need of a mere 66 generals.

And while the helicopter debate rages on, one other Thai aircraft that remains firmly on the ground is a Boeing 737 jet belonging to Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. The Thai royal jet has been impounded by German authorities at Munich Airport since earlier this month in relation to an outstanding debt of 30m euros (£26m; $43m) owed by Thailand's government to a now-defunct German construction firm. The German firm was part of a consortium that helped build a toll road between Bangkok and Don Muang airport 20 years ago.

And the already strained relations between Thailand and Germany took a turn for the worse last week when Germany re-granted a visa to deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Outgoing Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya asked that the German government explain to the international community the reasons for its decision.

Germany originally revoked Thaksin’s visa in 2008 after he fled Thailand to avoid serving a two-year prison sentence for a corruption conviction. However, after a change in Thaksin's fortunes following the July 3 election in which the Thaksin-backed Pheua Thai Party swept to power, Germany has now decided to re-grant the visa.

Kasit accused the Germans of double standards, pointing out that the German government had called on the Thai government to respect its law and justice system in the grounded jet fiasco (something the Thai government clearly hasn't done).

"But in Thaksin's criminal case, the German government cites the changing political climate (in Thailand) as the basis for re-granting a visa to him," Kasit said. The change in stance came despite the fact that Thaksin's conviction still stands, he continued.

And Thaksin’s fortunes continue to turn for the better. Thailand’s Election Commission (EC) cleared the way for the House of Representatives to convene with Thaksin's Phuea Thai party in power after it endorsed a batch of 94 poll winners including a number of red shirts last week.

The EC has now endorsed 496 out of the 500 MPs. Three remaining seats will be decided on Sunday - two through re-elections in Nong Khai's Constituency 2 and Sukhothai's Constituency 3, and the other through a recount in Yala's Constituency 2.

The final candidate is red shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan who currently finds himself in prison for constantly stirring up trouble in his role as Thaksin’s hot-air balloon.

Despite the numerous occasions when Jatuporn took to the stage during the red shirt siege of Bangkok and spouted evil propaganda to whip up misguided and ill-educated red shirts into a frenzy of hatred, the only reason he hasn’t been approved by the EC is because of a technicality over his membership of the Phuea Thai party.

Red shirt supporters are unsurprisingly demanding that Jatuporn be endorsed as an MP before the house convenes on August 1. Don’t be surprised to see mob rule win again.

Impartial justice, freedom from corruption, respect for the rule of law, and democracy in Thailand? There’s more chance of seeing helicopters fly.

Paul Snowdon – July 30, 2011

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