Weapons not needed now
Army chief Narongpan Jitkaewtae this week raised eyebrows when he ruled out the possibility that the armed forces would delay or give up part of their arms purchase plan, shrugging off repeated calls by the public for more money from state coffers to be used to battle the impacts from the Covid pandemic.
The reason? The arms procurement projects have already been approved by the government. Besides, the armed forces are required to honour the payment plans to maintain friendly relations with the weapon-selling countries, said the general. It's as simple as that.
However, his rationale could barely convince any economists, and also those with a right mind, especially since the country's gross domestic product (GDP) has shrunk as a result of the pandemic. Despite being so vast, military spending does not contribute to economic growth.
The army chief simply reiterated the stance he took earlier this year in the wake of the Covid-19 impact that had already weakened the country's economy.
It has to be admitted that technically speaking, the army chief is not entirely wrong. In accordance with the country's budget regulations, relinquishing an approved budget is complicated, and that may affect next year's planned expenditure. Not to mention that arms purchases, worth billions of baht, is tied-in budget.
However, when Gen Narongpan mentioned "honour", he gave the impression that there is no other way, which may not necessarily be the case.
Yet, the general thinks the most he could do in his capacity as army chief under the circumstances is to ensure the "the budget is used with the most efficiency". Such a statement is dubious as it is well known that military procurements, even before the 2014 coup, are subject to little scrutiny, and this explains why some procurements resulted in high-profile scandals like the purchase of the controversial GT200 bomb detectors.
The military regime under Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, chief of the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), had faced harsh criticism with its approval of the procurement of military hardware and weapons that would not have happened under a civilian government. The regime decided to go ahead with the purchase of three submarines, ignoring public outrage, and nearly 50 VT-4 battle tanks, all from China. Later, it also approved the purchase of 39 VN1 armoured vehicles from China, for 2 billion baht.
The regime was able to expand the defence shopping list simply because there was no efficient checks-and-balances mechanism. The coup-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) acted as a rubber stamp, while taxpayers are left to shoulder the burden from the huge military spending spree.
Since his coup days, Gen Prayut has only given a broad statement to support weapons procurements: the need to upgrade the country's weaponry and catch up with the defence capabilities of other countries, which remains in question given lack of imminent security threats over land or water boundaries.
Even when the coup days were over, the armed forces proposed several procurement projects like for a fleet of Stryker tanks and a military transport aircraft.
With the elected parliament, there is at least a scrutiny process, and the budget could face some cutting. But, sadly, the burden on the national budget will not be eliminated.
In pursuing heavy military spending in a time of economic hardship, the generals should know they are harming the government's stability more than any external enemies, if there are any, could ever do.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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