The opposition kicked off its censure debate Sunday by attacking Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat for his role in the navy's scheme to modernise combat systems on two frigates.
Sirichok Sopha, Democrat MP for Songkhla, accused the defence minister of negligence of duty, opening the way for corruption and putting the lives of naval crew in danger.
But Prompong Nopparit, spokesman for the ruling Pheu Thai Party, suggested the Democrats were targeting ACM Sukumpol because he has been pursuing allegations of draft-dodging against opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. He asked why Mr Abhisit did not open the debate, which will continue Monday and Tuesday.
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"Is he afraid of being hit back by the defence minister [over the draft-dodge claims]? Today's debate looks more like a revenge attack on the defence minister," he said.
Mr Sirichok's remarks centred on the navy's contract awarded to SAAB AB to upgrade combat systems on the HTMS Naresuan and HTMS Taksin frigates. The Democrat MP charged that ACM Sukumpol had altered the terms of reference (ToR) of the scheme just 12 days after assuming the defence portfolio.
ACM Sukumpol's intervention resulted in Saab changing the combat system from Sagem Decoy to the less advanced Terma Decoy. The change lowered the cost of procurement by just 1,000 baht.
Mr Sirichok said the Sagem decoy unit can provide significantly better protection from missile threats, as it has 360-degree coverage.
However, the Terma Decoy, dubbed by Mr Sirichok as "World War II-period military technology", has limited air defence capabilities due to its design.
The defence minister subsequently asked the cabinet to allocate a budget of 2.69 billion baht to fund the upgrade.
"The price was negotiated and lowered by 1,000 baht. One thousand baht!" Mr Sirichok said.
He suspected that was the difference on paper only, and that the deals were actually worth much more to certain government politicians than was being publicly disclosed.
"Some people are wondering who kept the change of 1 billion baht," he said, implying that the downgraded technology would cost that much less.Mr Sirichok said the person who pulled the strings was a woman with close connections to the defence minister. "She is not an MP but she is close to ACM Sukumpol," he said.
He urged the government MPs to cast a vote of no-confidence against ACM Sukumpol if they wanted better protection for the crew of both vessels.
In his defence, ACM Sukumpol said the change in the ToR was in line with the navy's opinion.
Neither frigate would be able to make full use of the Sagem Decoy because of the ships' limited capabilities, he said.
ACM Sukumpol said Saab also offered additional decoys to respond to torpedo threats, which would make the self-defence system on board both frigates complete.
"I care for all three armed forces and understand their hardship. I wouldn't do anything that puts their lives on the line," he said.
ACM Sukumpol was also accused of negligence of duty allowing for corruption in another navy vessel procurement scheme.
Democrat list-MP Alongkorn Ponlabutr took the floor to question the defence minister over the repair and maintenance of three vessels involving Marsun Co.
Mr Alongkorn said the scheme, worth 553.5 million baht, drew the attention of the Office of Auditor-General (OAG), which suspected unfair competition and recommended a review.
However, ACM Sukumpol approved the scheme and the navy went on to sign the contract.
Marsun, which won the bid over Seacrest Marine Co, apparently failed to meet the ToR but was awarded the contract anyway, Mr Alongkorn said.
He said the company failed to submit a product certificate from the engine manufacturer. It submitted the certificate from a distributor instead.
Mr Alongkorn claimed Marsun was a company with a dubious background. Registered in the Cayman Islands, a quarter of its shares are held by a former navy chief and a former assistant navy chief, he said.
ACM Sukumpol said he acted in the best interests of the navy, which sent a letter of clarification to the OAG six times and asked the office to conclude its inquiry. "But the OAG claimed it was the navy's business. I had looked into the complaints [against Marsun] and decided the scheme should proceed. Moreover, the House committee on military affairs found nothing wrong with it," ACM Sukumpol said.
He also came under attack for the transfers of former defence permanent secretary Sathian Phoemthongin and two other generals over a reshuffle.
ACM Sukumpol transferred Gen Sathian, his deputy Chatree Thatti and director-general of the Secretariat Department Pinpas Sariwat to inactive posts on the ground they had leaked information about the appointment of the next permanent secretary for defence.
Gen Sathian was known to have challenged ACM Sukumpol's choice of the new permanent secretary, Thanongsak Apirakyothin.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was criticised for her alleged intervention in the military reshuffle. She denied interfering in the defence ministry, saying she had no authority to do so.
About the author
Writer: Manop Thip-Osod & Aekarach Sattaburuth