Sinking reputation
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Sinking reputation

The outcome of the Royal Thai Navy's (RTN) internal investigation into the sinking of the HTMS Sukhothai may draw the final curtain on one of the country's worst maritime tragedies.

The fact-finding mission, however, which took over a year to accomplish, cannot salvage the public's sinking faith in the navy.

The outcome concludes that three factors -- namely, a "reckless decision" by its commander, Capt Phichitchai Thueannadee; brutal weather; and some "unexpected punctures" -- caused the 36-year-old vessel to sink in the Gulf of Thailand on Dec 19, 2022.

Of the 105 people on board, 76 were rescued, 24 were found dead, and five remain missing.

Capt Pichitchai is the only navy officer being held responsible. He said at a press conference on Tuesday at an RTN facility that he would resign after serving his penalty of 15 days' incarceration.

He is accused of making the "reckless decision" not to dock the vessel at the nearby port of Prachuap Khiri Khan before returning to Sattahip Naval Base, which is over 10 hours' sailing time away. The investigation cleared him of civil responsibility as he did not intend to cause any damage.

The probe team dismissed the outrageous accusation that the corvette did not have enough lifesaving jackets. Indeed, there are 120 on board, more than enough for the 105 crew members. The problem is that not everyone wore one, despite the commander repeatedly ordering them to do so. Needless to say, a safety lapse of this magnitude is less than the public expects of a national warship.

The probe failed to shed light on what caused the "unexpected punctures" that allowed seawater to penetrate the corvette. It merely revealed that powerful waves damaged the wave breaker in front of a 76mm gun turret, causing a one-square-inch rupture on the steel deck of the vessel. The gun turret was also damaged by the impact of "an unidentified large and hard object". Another two ruptures in the left gunwale were apparently caused by the impact of other exterior and unidentified objects.

To be fair, the fact-finding mission faced severe limitations. Investigators were not able to inspect the crime scene, as the HTMS Sukhothai remains on the sea bed. They had to rely on photos and other evidence from the 19-day joint investigation by the RTN and the US Navy earlier this year.

The evidence salvaged from the vessel provided few clues -- for example, a salvaged phone lacked a SIM card, and the retrieved CCTV footage was irreparably broken.

With many stones left unturned, questions and nasty rumours have plugged the hole. Jirat Thongsuwan, a Move Forward Party MP for Chachoengsao, lobbed accusations at the RTN during a general debate in parliament. He claimed the corvette sank because it had not been well-maintained, among other claims.

Regardless of what the facts may be, the probe mirrors the lack of accountability within the military system. Under the current rules, any mistakes made by personnel are investigated by their own men. As a result of such an opaque system, even the facts can appear to lack credibility.

The government and many lawmakers have tried to reform the military. The latest probe into the HTMS Sukhothai should remind them that the days of soldiers conducting their own probes must end.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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