Defending the indefensible?

Defending the indefensible?

This week, both the government and the Defence Ministry went on the defensive. They have publicly countered the opposition's quest to scrutinise the military's "off-budget" spending and abolish conscription. Unfortunately, their defence has ended up as almost indefensible -- simply because their arguments lack any real substance.

The issue of the Defence Ministry's 18-billion-baht off-budget spending was raised last Friday by Future Forward Party (FFP) leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit upon his resignation from a House committee investigating the 2020 fiscal budget.

This off-budget funding is off limits to public disclosure and scrutiny by the Lower House. There is no information provided by the ministry about who is authorised to use this money and precisely how it will be spent, Mr Thanathorn pointed out.

The FFP leader also revealed that the Financial and Fiscal Discipline Act of 2018, passed by the former military regime's lawmakers, provides a loophole for the Defence Ministry to seek an exemption from the Finance Ministry to have this budget bypass compliance with laws and regulations applicable to all other government agencies. Defence Ministry regulations also allow this kind of budget to be subject solely to internal audit.

Mr Thanathorn's quest for transparency drew a response from Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon who called for the public to trust the military and its senior soldiers, saying the budget expenditure has been overseen and audited internally by all levels of supervisors in the armed forces.

The money is used for defence personnel welfare benefits and on public services, he said. Nevertheless, this explanation of the budget's use was too vague and general to give the public a clear idea about what the money is needed for.

Instead of asking for trust, the government and the ministry should disclose the details of this line of spending to parliament and the public.

Also weak in substance was Defence Ministry spokesman Lt Gen Kongcheep Tantravanich's rebuke of the FFP's anti-conscription campaign. He said it is too soon for the country to put an end to conscription and rely instead on volunteer recruits. This could "affect national security", he insisted, adding it could result in a shortage of military personnel as the number of volunteers who apply each year is far from sufficient for the ministry's needs.

But what is insufficient is his explanation. Lt Gen Kongcheep should have come up with figures and detailed operational plans for the use of draftees. He should also have elaborated on what the imminent threats to national security are and explained in detail why existing professional soldiers, military hardware and weapons, and volunteer recruits are insufficient to deal with the potential threats.

The government and the military should stop relying on the same old, empty rhetoric whenever they mount a defence against these criticisms. They should start to commit themselves to the same level of transparency and accountability imposed on other ministries and agencies.

If all ministries and government agencies were able to enjoy such large amounts of off-budget spending without being subject to external audit and public disclosure, corruption, which is already rampant in the public sector, would be even more widespread.

The same goes for conscription. If all government agencies refuse any organisational restructuring or reform, in time they will become irrelevant and inefficient.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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