Apirat's vow to reform military misses the mark

Apirat's vow to reform military misses the mark

The Feb 8 shooting rampage which claimed 30 lives in Korat is a tragic shock. Yet, there must be a thorough investigation into its root causes and necessary actions must be taken to convert this tragedy into a lesson in order to prevent it happening again.

As the situation unfolded, we have learned that the army is riddled with a swath of internal problems which have snowballed into a full-blown crisis. The army system, which has zero scrutiny, has allowed "parasites" to make ill-gotten gains while serving the institution. Moreover, some media outlets are facing a backlash for reporting in a way that compromised the safety of hostages and rescue teams simply to boost ratings. There are also mounting fears that inappropriate reporting might trigger copycat behaviour.

In addition, it cannot be denied that it was because of the army's shortcomings that a low-ranking soldier turned into a heartless murderer.

The men in green must realise that this is a crisis and they must do their best to clean up their filthy backyard -- by allowing scrutiny from outside, just like civilian organisations -- for the sake of transparency and accountability. It's time to make the "grey businesses" in the military a thing of the past and allow soldiers of all ranks keep their pride and honour.

During a press conference on Tuesday, army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong admitted to the myriad of problems that affect the army. He made a promise to tackle them before he retires in seven months. What he mentioned is, however, seemingly just the tip of the iceberg.

We have learned that the killer lost his mind after being cheated by his commanding officer and the officer's mother-in-law who ran a housing project for low-ranking soldiers. To exact revenge, this soldier killed both of them, before sneaking out to begin an indiscriminate massacre.

Such military housing projects, which are meant to serve as a welfare scheme for low-ranking soldiers, are being carried out in several provinces. It remains to be seen if other projects are also riddled with foul play, but what is certain is that in the Korat camp, the killer soldier was not the only one cheated. There are other poor soldiers wishing for a home in the same boat.

The rampage also revealed big gaps in the procedure of maintaining the security of the armoury as the killer was able to steal guns and ammunition with relative ease. The fact that the killer owned five guns speaks volumes about the role of arms dealers and some unscrupulous officers who have made illegal arms sales rampant. Yet, what made matters worse was the slow, almost zero, response to the robbery and shooting in the camp. So many lives would not have been lost if the military had been able to stop the killer before he made his way out of the camp and begin the slaughter.

Another key issue is the mistreatment and abuse of low-ranking soldiers by senior officers. Over the past years, there have been reports about deaths of conscripts during training, and the use of conscripts as servants for senior officers, etc. In addition, shady military deals are not uncommon. It's not unheard of for senior officers to open companies and bid for projects in military units. This is not to mention other kinds of "grey businesses" involving such as "mafia soldiers", who benefit from illegitimate deals or by squeezing "protection fees" from the business sector.

Gen Apirat has promised more transparency in the army regarding public land assets, golf clubs, boxing stadiums, and hotel deals with income set to be channelled to the army welfare fund. He also aims to streamline army welfare houses, saying that retired soldiers will have to move out of army houses so that their successors can take over. However, it is believed that such strict policies will not be applied to high-ranking officers.

The army chief also did not make mention of extra money generated outside of the national fiscal budget such as profit generated from army media, known to be a real treasure trove for some of the officers in the three armed forces which own a big share of the total of 537 stations. It should be noted that the army's TV Channel 7 concession has not been renewed for 50 years. There are also other benefits such as arms sales dealings. These are the big issues that the men in uniforms have kept from public scrutiny, citing "national security". But they have such enormous interests. The question is: Will Gen Apirat dare to lay his hands on them?

Even if Gen Apirat means it, and wants to do a big clean-up, how far can he go? It's a gigantic task, given that most -- if not all -- are structural problems and he is due to retire in September. Instead of going it alone, Gen Apirat should consider seeking help from other sectors, the House of Representatives, civic groups, and society in general, for such a noble task.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.


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