Minister of defence in a mixed-up role
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Minister of defence in a mixed-up role

If I hadn't been keeping a close eye on the political news every day, I would have mistakenly assumed -- from watching last Friday's televised account -- that Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has been suspended from his duties as prime minister by the charter court since Aug 24, has already returned to carry out his duties at Government House.

On Friday, Gen Prayut, working in his continued capacity as defence minister, was seen visiting flood-hit communities in Rayong province.

"As defence minister, I am more concerned about the plight of people [suffering from floods]," he told the media during an inspection trip there. He was seen taking selfies with villagers and tasting local snacks. His supporters were vocal in their moral support, affectionately using his nickname as they chanted: "Uncle Tu ... Keep fighting!"

However, curious minds may ask: What is the defence minister's role and priority? That question is relevant because the ministry last week counted two negative reports related to its servicemen -- one related to a shooting incident and the other linked to sexual harassment on military premises. For both issues, the ministry has given no explanation.

A few days before Gen Prayut visited Rayong, Sgt Maj Yongyut Mangkornkim shot dead two colleagues and wounded another soldier at the Army War College at the Army Training Command in Bangkok's Dusit district on Sept 13. The gunman, who was arrested that day, had reportedly threatened to shoot 10 servicemen at the college.

And this isn't the first shooting spree of its kind. In February 2020, a soldier shot dead 29 people in a 17-hour rampage and wounded scores more before he was killed by commandos in Nakhon Ratchasima. That macabre incident was linked to a debt dispute between the gunman and one of his seniors in the army. Again, the military's response was disappointing.

In both cases, military probes found the culprits to be mentally ill. There were no further attempts to dig deeper into the real cause or tackle the mental issues plaguing Thai servicemen.

Meanwhile, an army sergeant was recently accused by a female counterpart of attempted rape at an army building in Kanchanaburi. Despite reports and viral clips of the accused also having harassed other female staff -- including one video of him groping the breasts of one woman colleague. We have yet to see a disciplinary probe launched.

Yet, the problem goes beyond sexual harassment in the office.

It turns out that the woman -- along with her husband, who is also a soldier -- chose to press charges with the police instead of taking their chances with the military court. The courageous woman even went public by addressing the media, which is rare for military personnel.

As Gen Prayut conducted his tour of flood-hit areas on Friday, the woman was interviewed that same day by the popular news show "Hone Krasae" on Channel 3. She told its host, Kanchai Kamnerdploy, that many female officials working at the same army base had experienced sexual harassment from the same person. "Instead of investigating whether the accused soldier was guilty as charged, and trying to resolve the issue, the person in charge of the army base launched a probe to find out who released the video clips to the public," she said, clearly exasperated.

She also claimed her superior officer offered her a financial settlement to stay silent.

"My boss told me I should take the money and use it to take care of my children, and that the accused sergeant could resign quietly. But if I chose the money, he would just do the same thing to other women," she said. After the news broke, the army sergeant was dismissed from his duties.

This suggests the situation at the nation's military bases is little different from many work places in Thailand, where sexual harassment often occurs and a few bad apples are quietly removed. But what is lacking is a system to deter this from happening by bringing the culprits to justice.

Apart from some vague comments about helping servicemen with mental issues and eradicating sexual harassment, there has been no concrete message or plans from the Defence Ministry, let alone the minister himself.

As such, who is protecting the soldiers on our army bases from these mentally-ill and fully armed troopers, or libido-driven servicemen with octopus hands? Added to this are the growing reports of graft and dubious arm procurement. Vice always thrives under a culture of secrecy.

Who is going to tackle these problems and clean up the military's affairs, giving soldiers a profession they can truly be proud of?

Apparently, the defence minister is too busy. Gen Prayut seems more interested in floods, and perhaps his own political career.

Anchalee Kongrut is Editorial Pages Editor at the Bangkok Post.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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