Army chief sees red over Pheu Thai's defence budget cut plan

Army chief sees red over Pheu Thai's defence budget cut plan

Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong on Monday reacts to the Pheu Thai Party's plan to cut the defence budget. (Photo by Wassana Nanuam)
Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong on Monday reacts to the Pheu Thai Party's plan to cut the defence budget. (Photo by Wassana Nanuam)

Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong on Monday said he strongly opposed the Pheu Thai Party's policy to cut the defence budget by 20% -- and use the money to instead promote young entrepreneurs.

The army chief did not make a long statement. He simply referred to a song to show his opposition to the policy.

"They should listen to this tune -- Nak Phandin," he said before leaving the Internal Security Operations Command office, where he attended its 11th year anniversary.

Nak Phandin, which translates as "Burden on the Land", is a song composed in 1975 to promote patriotic feeling during a fight against the now-defunct Communist Party of Thailand. It has previously been used to stir nationalism by the armed forces -- including by the National Council for Peace and Order after it seized power in 2014.

A spokeswoman of the National Council for Peace and Order on Monday evening denied media reports that Gen Apirat had ordered all 126 army-run radio stations to play Nak Phandin every day except Saturday, Sunday and holidays, during the “Army Meets the People” and “Uniting to Do Good Deeds for the Land” programmes.

However, the song would continue to be broadcast inside the Army Command at noon, so all soldiers were aware of their duty and responsibilities to the country. 

The Future Forward Party said the army chief’s comments further underscored the dire need for military reform, one of the party’s key platforms. The party proposes the military operate under a joint chiefs of staff system, under civilian control.

“Although the military says it is impartial, there are times when this is clearly not the case,” party spokeswoman Pannika Wanich said.

She pointed to an order asking soldiers to support Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, so that what he had done was not wasted.

“And it’s clear as daylight this time. The military continues to pressure political parties, criticises and possibly intervenes in politics, eventually leading to a military coup in the worst case.

“No one is a burden on the land. Everyone weighs equally in this land. Everyone works and pays taxes like everyone else. What we know for sure is the military budget is excessively heavy. Nak Phandin is out of style today because it brands compatriots with different views. If we want something modern, why don’t we try Prathat Ku Mee?

"To date, that song has had 56 million views. It clearly shows what people want to listen to and what their stand is. Everybody wants change,” she said.

Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, a Pheu Thai candidate for the prime ministership, posted on Facebook on Monday evening the party would slash the defence budget by 10% or around 20 billion baht, and use the money as seed capital for startups by the young generation of business operators. The money would help 30,000 young entrepreneurs build up their businesses, she claimed.

Gen Apirat's evocation of a patriotic song to make a political point was followed by a further shot across the military's bows from another key Pheu Thai member.

Watana Muangsook, no stranger to controversy, tweeted on Monday that more needed to be done to keep the Defence Ministry in check.

"We must make the armed forces leaner by reducing the excessive number of generals," he wrote. "The armed forces should be separated from politics."

Pheu Thai is not the only party ready to take on the influential armed forces. The Future Forward Party promises to end conscription if it wins power.

Campaign pledges

Over the past five years, from fiscal 2014-19, the defence budget stood at 180 billion, 190 billion, 200 billion, 210 billion and 104 billion baht respectively.

Apart from Pheu Thai, which aims for a 10% cut, Future Forward eyes even more drastic measures. The party has pledged since last year to cut the defence budget by 30%, or around 68 billion baht. It plans to use the amount to double allowances for the elderly to 1,200 baht a month each.

The party also wants to replace the military draft with a voluntary system and halve the military workforce and the number of generals.

In addition to the two parties, Thai Raksa Chart has talked about cutting the defence budget.

As well, the Democrat and Sri Ruam Thai parties support the idea of ending military draft, to be replaced by volunteers.

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