Army budget out of control
With Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha's return to power as prime minister and him being tipped to also become the defence minister, the downsizing of the military and defence budget and repealing the military conscription rule -- which were electoral campaign pledges of key opposition parties -- are unlikely to take place.
Instead, his government will likely increase defence spending while the annual drafting of about 100,000 conscripts will continue.
The vast and increasing defence spending during the past five years under the military government has not been made with justified explanations based on specific security risk assessments. Gen Prayut has only been able to cite the need "to upgrade the country's weaponry and catch up with the defence capabilities of other countries".
But with no imminent security threat to Thailand's territorial integrity, there is a need to review and possibly cut back on defence spending. For one thing, the country is suffering from an economic slowdown.
In February this year, defence spokesman Lt Gen Kongcheep Tantravanich responded to criticism of the defence budget hikes by pointing out they had not only been approved by the military government but also by previous administrations as part of a steady rise over a decade. And he was right.
Since the 2006 coup, the defence budget has increased almost every year from 115 billion baht in 2007 to 227 billion baht in 2019.
However, that does not mean that this should become the de facto standard. With two military coups since 2006, the increases were made by coup-appointed regimes to maintain the strength of the military. They were also approved by civilian governments, which were keen to avoid challenging the military's demands for fear of further coup attempts. The allocation of a budget which accounts for more than 7% of total annual spending should not be made for these reasons.
Defence spending under the Prayut government has been harshly criticised mainly because it involved the approval of procurement of military hardware and weapons that would not happen under a civilian government. The regime has spent more than 40 billion baht purchasing items which include a 13.5-billion-baht submarine and almost 9 billion baht for 49 VT-4 battle tanks from China. In May, it also approved the purchase of 39 VN1 armoured vehicles from China, at a cost of 2 billion baht.
It is expected the new government will pursue its predecessor's plan to buy two more submarines.
As the defence shopping list grows bigger, justification for the expenditure remains slim. Thailand faces no clear and present danger caused by border or maritime security threats. The country is also not a party to the conflict over the contested South China Sea. And the Gulf of Thailand is said to be too shallow for submarine warfare. Insurgency in the restive South does not demand such massive spending.
Additionally, about 12 billion baht from this big, fat annual budget has been spent on the salaries of military conscripts, the majority of whom did not want to be drafted in the first place. Thailand has kept its conscription rule for decades without reassessing whether there is still the need for this reserve force.
Like other institutions, the military should not resist reform. The huge defence spending and the conscription rule should face challenges by the opposition in parliament, even though the government camp and the Senate may eventually veto them.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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