Subs plan sinks on sight
As Covid-19 hits the country with rising demand for health services, the navy has been forced to come to terms with financial reality as well as fierce public sentiment against its costly submarine purchase.
Last week, the navy withdrew from this year's budget the 900 million baht sought for the remaining two Chinese-made submarines, days after it maintained the spending must go ahead no matter what.
The House panel scrutinising the defence budget was to meet yesterday to slash other submarine-related projects; for instance, accommodation for submarine staff (294 million baht); a control system (a tied-in budget worth 300 million baht), the dockyard (900 million baht), maintenance centre (958 million baht); and unmanned aerial vehicles (4.5 billion baht).
A navy spokesman yesterday pleaded for understanding from the panel, hoping for minimal cuts.
However, the navy's top brass should know the country, running on a deficit budget funded by enormous loans, cannot afford such expensive items which many regard as irrelevant to the country's marine topology.
The purchase should not have been approved in the first place. Patrol boats are a better fit for the country as they guard against transborder smugglers.
In past years, the navy tried hard to "correct" public views over the need for submarines, to no avail.
A delay in the purchase, made with reluctance, was ordered by Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha who was wary of the strong public sentiment against the submarines. He knew it could cause his administration political trouble.
He must hope the latest postponement is a gesture of compromise that could ease pressure on his government.
Scrapping the submarine plan was one of the demands made by pro-democracy groups during their recent street protests.
It was Gen Prayut, as head of the junta, who in 2017 gave the green light to the controversial 36-billion-baht submarine procurement with an 11-year payment cycle, triggering a public furore.
Back then, there was no parliamentary checks and balances mechanism as the military-installed National Legislative Assembly acted more like a rubber stamp for the Prayut-led junta, aka the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO); while street protests were suppressed with the use of martial law.
Before that, all democratically elected governments, no matter how popular they were, had rejected the navy's submarine proposal.
One popular saying that the submarines would become a reality only under a military-led government is sadly true.
Another sad fact is the defence budget has expanded enormously each year since the junta stepped into politics. This year's defence budget, before cuts, was more than 200 billion baht.
Yet it's a pity that the sub procurement, with its tied-in budget, can only be delayed, not totally scrapped.
The submarine purchases will continue to be a burden on state coffers and taxpayers.
The submarine deal, which was completed under a dictatorship, is a costly lesson for the nation. It should serve as a reminder that dictatorships do the country no good.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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