Military spend makes budget a hard sell
The opposition's decision to abstain in the voting on the government's 3.2-trillion-baht budget bill for the 2020 fiscal year is a smart move that makes them look reasonable and not a "bad guy" who opposes everything associated with the government simply because they are in opposition.
The abstention has also helped the opposition avoid the embarrassment of a possible rebellion by some dissident Pheu Thai MPs who may have voted in support of the bill had the opposition decided to vote against it, which would have further eroded its image as a unified force.
Remember an earlier report that a group of over 10 Pheu Thai MPs met core members of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP)? They were not there just for a chit-chat of course. And the PPRP's "muscle man", Thamanat Prompao, has re-emerged and is now back in his specialised business of wheeling and dealing with potential defectors.
The bill passed the first reading of the House of Representatives with 251 votes in favour against 234 abstentions. One MP did not vote and one Future Forward MP, Kavinnart Takee of Chon Buri, voted for the bill in defiance of the opposition's stand.
After the vote on Saturday night, opposition chief whip Suthin Khlangsaeng explained why all the opposition MPs abstained: "Honestly, we feel heavy-hearted to vote in favour of the bill. If we vote against the bill, we are concerned about the country and the people. So, we decided to give them [the government] a chance, but with a condition that they make improvements, otherwise, during the third reading, we reserve our right [to reject the bill]. Do not underestimate us."
The opposition has a valid point in opposing the increased defence budget, especially for the procurement of weaponry which, as they pointed out during the debate, does not take into account the country's grim economic outlook as manifested in falling exports, economic slowdown, decreased tourist arrivals and rising unemployment.
In a way, the military top brass are living in their own world and preaching their gospel of national security to justify their need for "new toys" while a real security threat -- immediate or in the foreseeable future -- which would justify the procurement of submarines, tanks and troop carrier warships is non-existent.
The real threat is only their perception.
Take, for example, the recent signing of a deal between the Royal Thai Navy and China State Shipbuilding Corp to build a Type 071E landing platform dock (LPD) warship. The LPD071 is a 20,000 tonne-class warship that can carry combat personnel and equipment, including air-cushioned landing craft, amphibious assault vehicles, tanks and helicopters. The ship will boost the country's troop deployment capability in the high seas and can be used for civilian purposes such as disaster relief operations.
The big question is with whom we are going to fight on the high seas? And if the ship is to be used for disaster relief operations, what about the HTMS Chakri Naruebet aircraft carrier which can be used for the same purpose, but has now become a dormant tourist attraction for visitors to Sattahip naval base because the Navy does not have the funds to maintain the vessel? All the vertical takeoff planes that used to be deployed on the vessel have long been decommissioned due to lack of spare parts and money.
Not to mention the Chinese Yuan-class submarine under construction in China, with two more to be procured by the Navy.
While the military top brass are lavishly spending taxpayers' money on these expensive "new toys" for their perceived security needs, it is ridiculous they can't afford to provide bullet-proof vests and armoured fighting vehicles for the soldiers, paramilitary rangers in particular, who are putting their lives in danger from roadside bombs on an almost daily basis.
The opposition claims it wants to give the government a chance to make changes to the defence budget. But I don't think the government will do as they wish.
An old soldier himself with the same soldier's mentality, the prime minister cannot afford to offend the military because he needs them by his side to prop up his administration.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.