Subs plan could sink govt fortunes
Even when the economy is thriving, with high GDP figures, we expect the government to spend rationally. Therefore, the government's decision to go ahead with the 22.5 billion baht submarine purchase at a time when the country is struggling amid economic contraction, millions are out of work because of Covid-19 restrictions and depend on state assistance, has understandably triggered outrage.
Yet the government, in particular the navy, is turning a blind eye to the harsh economic reality and public anger. It is defiantly pursuing the plan with taxpayers' hard-earned money.
Many regard the two S-26T submarines from China as nothing but expensive toys for men in uniform.
On Friday, MPs from the opposition bloc revealed that a House subcommittee scrutinising the budget bill for fiscal 2021 approved the submarine procurement on a 5:4 vote.
Yutthapong Jarassathian, a Pheu Thai Party MP and a subcommittee member, said the purchase was subject to fierce debate with no conclusion.
So panel members resorted to voting, which ended with a tied 4-4 -- four MPs from the pro-military Palang Pracharath, and those from the coalition, ie the Democrats and Bhumjaithai Party voted yes; while the opposition bloc, comprising Pheu Thai, Saree Ruam Thai and the Move Forward Party opposed the plan.
Eventually, Supol Fongngam, the committee chairman from the Palang Pracharath Party stepped in, voting in favour of the purchase, resulting in the tally of 5-4.
The submarines are among three items which the then military regime under Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was leader of the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order, approved in 2017 under a 36-billion-baht contract in a hush-hush manner in the hope the issue would escape public attention.
The country had no checks and balances mechanism back then, as the military-installed National Legislative Assembly performed a rubber-stamping role.
According to the navy, the purchase of the first submarine is already complete, using the 2017 budget, and it will be delivered in 2024.
Beijing, said the navy, also agreed to provide "free of charge" CM-708 missiles, which can be fired from the submarines over a range of 290km.
However, Mr Yutthapong found out the procurement contract didn't mention an obligation on the Thai government to acquire the other two. He urged the navy to delay the procurement amid the economic downturn.
Defeated in the first round, the opposition bloc has vowed to knock it down during the lower House debate next month.
Members of the public, meanwhile, received the purchase news with dismay. Not just because of the navy's failure to convince them as to why Thailand needs the submarines, but also because such a huge amount of money can make a difference if it's used in welfare, almost a necessity given the impacts of Covid-19.
What can the government do with the 22.5 billion baht? It can provide a 5,000-baht monthly subsidy to 1.5 million unemployed workers for three months, or cover free healthcare services for nearly six million people under the universal coverage scheme.
It can also use the budget to help students from poor family backgrounds, who were forced to leave schools because their parents lost incomes during the coronavirus outbreak.
It could also benefit the Equitable Education Fund. Suppose the government hands a 3,000-baht annual subsidy to a poor student, the cost of two submarines can support education access for 670,000 students for 11 years!
This is another example that shows how the Gen Prayut government, and the MPs from the coalition parties, care little about the public's welfare.
Last month, the Royal Thai Army revealed it planned to buy a new VIP transport aircraft valued at 1.35 billion baht in the next fiscal year.
The army insisted the purchase was necessary for the transport of senior army personnel and VIPs. The aircraft will replace the old Beechcraft 1900yf in use for 30 years.
We were told the army already has eight VIP transport aircraft, but it's likely the new procurement will go ahead since it's known the military has had a virtually free hand when it comes to budget process.
This trend has become clear since the NCPO's time as the military budget keeps climbing.
People are not happy with the new aircraft, but at least they know the plane will be used since we have so many VIPs in this country. But submarines with missiles? Are we going to have a war? Unlikely, now that almost the entire world is at war with coronavirus. Not to mention that submarines are a bygone military technology.
The strong desire to purchase submarines prompted speculation about the vested interests of some people concerned, in the form of commissions, perhaps. Some said, however, the submarine acquisition is more about improving bilateral ties.
According to the Arms Flows to South East Asia report released in 2019 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the military regime under Gen Prayut suffered isolation as several European arms suppliers were forced to re-evaluate their relations with Thailand following the 2014 coup.
This left a large gap that China was willing to fill. The global power endorsed the military regime, maintaining close ties, and at the same time won orders for tanks, armoured vehicles, and submarines after 2015. In short, China has obtained a big chunk of the military budget.
Between 2009 and 2018, says the report, Thai military spending increased by 16%, and it is likely to continue to increase for as long as the military remains close to the government.
But if the government and the men in uniform continue to use our money in such an irrational way, they will face a challenge, as society will press for military reform, in addition to the government's resignation and charter rewrite.
When that happens, it will be a costly lesson for the government and the men in uniform.
Parita Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.