Army must be accountable

Army must be accountable

The Royal Thai Army (RTA), one of the country's most powerful institutions, last week marked Thai Armed Forces Day, a day when it showcased its strength and solidarity.

As the RTA celebrated its big day, the public must keep in mind that military officials still owe a few explanations on its pledge to reform, following several cases, including the Korat mass shooting last year that left a huge stain on its image.

About one year ago, on the afternoon of Feb 8, a disgruntled soldier named Jakrapanth Thomma shot and killed 29 innocent people and wounded 57 others in Nakhon Ratchasima before he was finally put down by police inside the Terminal 21 Korat shopping mall the following morning.

The incident, which began with the killing of the soldier's senior officer and his mother-in-law at their home over a property dispute, is considered the deadliest mass shooting in the kingdom's history.

It was found the soldier and his commander were involved in a welfare housing venture for army officers and the latter allegedly swindled some money.

Political analysts and the public have pointed to the army's side dealings as the root cause. They say some army officers enter into private business dealings -- and it's an open secret.

Paul Chambers, a political analyst at Naresuan University, told Reuters news agency: "It is actually quite common for senior military officers to be involved in real estate, especially in Thailand's rural areas."

On Feb 11, then army chief Apirat Kongsompong promised to investigate the problem, while admitting the army has long been marred by alleged irregularities in many projects ranging from welfare housing and loans involving cooperation between military units and merchants. But eventually, the general reduced the mayhem to a personal conflict between the soldier and the senior officer. This was a disappointment.

As Gen Apirat vowed to make the army more transparent in its business dealings which generate about one billion baht per year, the army agreed to transfer the control of about 160,000 ha of commercial land to the Finance Ministry. But was that enough?

While the transfer means revenues will go to the state, a lack of transparency is still a problem. The government needs to have the power to audit the army, a state agency that each year receives huge state budget, to shed light on RTA businesses.

In fact, the carnage by Jakrapanth escalated the calls for reform in the RTA which the former army commander pledged to comply with. Apart from the mass shooting, there are other scandals, such as the mysterious death of a 21-year-old military conscript in Bangkok.

While a military hospital ruled that he died because he had an "abnormal heartbeat", not physical assault as speculated by netizens, many have expressed doubts about the cause of the conscript's death.

In addition, activist lawyers alleged there has been the illegal allocation of over 70,000 rai of forest land in Nakhon Ratchasima for a real estate project involving senior army officers.

According to local news website, the lawyer received complaints that the land was being encroached on by influential military figures close to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. There have been no reports of an investigation, let alone progress and punishment of culprits.

Back to the Feb 8 carnage, what the army could explain to the public is that all of the families of the mass shooting received compensation for their losses. Army spokesman Maj Gen Santipong Thampiya did not disclose the details of the RTA's investigation into the case.

When Maj Gen Santipong was asked about the reform, his answer was vague, saying "it's under way". But does it meet public expectation, that the armed forces under Gen Narongphan Jitkaewtae, who succeeded Gen Apirat as the top commander in Oct 2020, will be compact, modern and efficient, with army men showing their professionalism and staying away from politics?

No one is sure.

With such a vague statement, this is a worrying sign the military has sidestepped the promise of reform.

Gen Narongphan is obliged to push for the reform and finish the job before his tenure ends in 2022. At the same time, Gen Prayut needs to convince the army's top brass to have their finances audited. Finally, it is perhaps time to end the conscription of young men, and instead focus on recruiting patriots who will become professional soldiers.

How can the RTA restore public trust when it is entrenched in scandals? Why should the public trust a force of armed men who can barely be transparent in their affairs?

Thailand needs a capable defence force amid uncertainty in the region.

But what is more important is that this force has integrity, honour and the trust of the people it has sworn to protect.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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