Buying tanks won't get us to Thailand 4.0

Buying tanks won't get us to Thailand 4.0

Finally, the Thai army is to get 10 Chinese made VT-4 tanks worth over two billion baht.

The purchase of the new tanks, which will replace the ageing US-made M-41 light tanks, won cabinet approval on Tuesday. The purchase is the second phase of the army's tank procurement scheme which is for a full battalion of 49 tanks. The controversial submarine purchase is next in the pipeline.

With the arms purchase, plus the huge size of the armed forces, the Defence Ministry ranks No.4 among the ministries with the highest expenditure after Education, Interior and Finance.

Paritta Wangkiat is a reporter, Bangkok Post.

In the 2017 fiscal year, the government's military spending accounts for 7.9% of the overall budget, equivalent to 214 billion baht -- up from 184 billion in 2014, the year the military staged the coup. The surge in defence spending under this regime is hardly a surprise.

The defence budget is nearly double that of the Public Health Ministry which gets 4.8% of the budget. Other ministries receive smaller pieces of the financial cake: the Labour Ministry, 1.7%; the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, 1.2%; and Social Development and Human Security 0.4%.

Some may agree with the tank procurement, which will enhance military might. After all, as many would argue, weapons have deterrent power.

Others say it is still much better than the navy's submarine proposal which will demand more than 36 billion baht. This is because the defence claim that we need submarines to protect our sovereignty is too vague given the fact we do not really have a maritime threat, while the claim that new submarines will be used for exploring the oceans is ridiculous.

For the new tanks, the chances of using them are more than slim. The last time we engaged in armed border conflicts with our neighbour, Cambodia, was in 2009. Now the two governments work together amid enhanced relations -- that would be better than engaging in armed conflict which will take us nowhere.

This does not mean I don't care about national security. But to me, the definition of security goes beyond the one used by the military. It's more meaningful to enhance social security, which secures the well-being of the population. Will the immense defence budget help us achieve Thailand 4.0? Fat chance.

Besides, from my experience, I found the authorities do not hesitate to use those arms when dealing with the people. At hearings for controversial development projects in the southern provinces, it's not unusual to see fully armed soldiers, prisoner transport vehicles and armoured trucks around such venues. In my opinion, this is a way to scare those who disagree with the state.

Now the government is trying to convince us about the cheap price of weapons we are to obtain from China. It's apparent Beijing has become our "good neighbour" since the 2014 coup, and at the same time they are the main suppliers for Thailand's imported arms ammunition. This has increased the value of Chinese imports from 826 million baht in 2013 to 1.39 billion baht in 2016, according to customs records.

While China is a close ally, it's also a major player in the South China Sea conflict with some Asean members. Thailand may have to pay a high price, diplomatically, for cosying up to the aggressive superpower if the conflict escalates.

It's unfortunate the military regime does not really pay heed to public concern. It may not be aware of a recent World Bank report, "Getting Back on Track: Reviving Growth and Securing Prosperity for All", which says Thailand has lost its competitive edge over other countries in the region.

As of 2014, 7.1 million Thais still live in poverty and 6.7 million are vulnerable to falling back into poverty, especially in the Northeast, North and deep South.

The report also cited the widening gap between Bangkok and rural areas in terms of household income, consumption, education, skills and productivity levels. It's plain logic. If we don't buy arms, we have more money for other noble projects. There is a need, for example, to top up the budget for the universal healthcare scheme which guarantees healthcare access to 48 million people.

We might also have to start a universal pension programme as the elderly population is growing fast and the Finance Ministry estimates it will increase the financial burden on the state.

Or we can invest more in education and social schemes such as projects to sharpen labour skills, which will enable people to stand on their feet and depend less on the state, or projects on the environment or others that enable us to achieve quality growth.

Those are much smarter ways to spend taxpayers' money.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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