'Defence' budget under attack
Critics rip defence, stimulus spending
The opposition attacked government spending plans for favouring the Defence Ministry and imposing "ineffective" economic stimulus measures, as three days of debate on the budget bill began in the House on Thursday.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha defended the budget in its first reading, insisting national security and stability were a prerequisite for economic development, and said the budget for education was still high.
The bill allocates the Defence Ministry about 230 billion baht, a 6 billion baht increase from fiscal year 2019, and among the highest disbursements to any ministry.
Gen Prayut insisted that allocations under the 3.2 trillion-baht budget bill for the 2020 fiscal year represented proper prioritisation rather than being "concentrated'' in the hands of any particular ministry.
According to the opposition, the budget hike proposed for the Defence Ministry was to help pay for arms procurement and construction projects, which would divert money away from long-term investment projects at other ministries.
In the 2020 fiscal budget bill, security and defence spending has been favoured over measures to solve bread-and-butter problems affecting people's daily lives, the opposition added.
The opposition also took aim at the government's measures to improve the economy, saying cash handouts under various stimulus-package schemes during the five years of the previous coup-installed government had failed to address economic woes and combat social injustice.
Meanwhile, more than 600 billion baht of budgets accumulated in local administrative organisations nationwide cannot be scrutinised and is prone to graft, the opposition added.
Critics said that though the Education Ministry would receive the biggest share of the 2020 budget (368 billion baht), the amount was still lower than previous years.
In response, Gen Prayut said extra budget has been earmarked for the newly-established Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation. Three other portfolios that have asked for large budget allocations are the Interior (353 billion baht), Finance (249 billion), and Transport (178 billion) ministries.
The government has also been criticised for plans to set aside more than 518 billion baht for the general budget, which gives it a virtual licence to spend almost without scrutiny from the opposition. Of that amount, 96 billion has been earmarked as reserves for emergency purposes. Defending the general budget, Gen Prayut said it was set aside to pay salaries of government officials and pensions to retirees, adding agencies which request money from the general budget must submit spending details to the cabinet for approval.
The general budget is also used for emergency relief operations after natural disasters such as floods, he said, adding budget spending would be scrutinised by agencies.
During the budget grilling, Pheu Thai Party secretary-general and Bangkok MP Anudith Nakornthap said the previous government led by Gen Prayut had borrowed more than 2 trillion baht. It had operated on a massive budget, but the number of poor people had kept rising, he said.However, several government coalition MPs called on the government to increase the general budget for 2020, to stimulate the economy further. MPs from the government-coalition Democrat Party said cash handout schemes were not the right approach to spurring growth, and this policy should be revised.