Taking on the men in green

Taking on the men in green

Govt keen to avoid fight over taking back lucrative commercial assets

Brewing issue: The Royal Thai Air Force's Kantarat Golf Course, also known as Sanam Ngu, is located between runways at Don Mueang Airport.
Brewing issue: The Royal Thai Air Force's Kantarat Golf Course, also known as Sanam Ngu, is located between runways at Don Mueang Airport.

There has been a growing focus on military land and commercial welfare projects over the past five years. With the Pheu Thai Party now in power and the Move Forward Party (MFP) leading the opposition, scrutiny of these lucrative assets and operations has intensified.

Racecourses, boxing stadiums, golf courses, hotels, and radio and television stations are thought to be significant revenue streams for the armed forces and are commonly referred to as off-budget funds.

These funds are earmarked for supporting the development of the armed forces, improving the quality of life of military personnel, and covering expenses known as "the commander budget".

The military's land and commercial entities attracted increased attention following the Nakhon Ratchasima mass shooting in early 2020.

The now-dissolved Future Forward Party, the predecessor of the MFP, called for the management of such business activities to be transferred to the Finance Ministry.

According to the party, engaging in business activities fell outside the military's core responsibilities, and the transfer would allow it to concentrate fully on its primary duties.

Gen Apirat Kongsompong, who served as army chief then, pledged reform and more transparency.

The army signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Treasury Department on managing its commercial welfare projects and using state land for commercial purposes to ensure transparency and regulatory compliance.

The move was to pave the way for the transfer, so most of the revenue earned would go into state coffers with part of it redistributed to the army.

While reclaiming military assets and commercial ventures was not part of the Pheu Thai election campaign, the ruling party swiftly adopted the agenda upon assuming power. The MFP, meanwhile, continues its scrutiny of the military's commercial operations, which it brands "military commercialism".

PM takes first step

Prime Minister and Finance Minister Srettha Thavisin took the first step by asking the military to return unused land to the Treasury Department for reallocation for public use.

The army agreed to give up almost 10,000 rai of army-owned land in the northeastern province of Udon Thani for redistribution under the so-called "Nong Wua So" model to eradicate poverty and landlessness.

The handover of the land which is controlled by the 3rd Field Artillery Regiment will take place tomorrow.

Mr Srettha also approached the military to allow the use or relinquishment of the military-occupied areas.

In addition to the Kantarat golf course located between runways of Don Mueang Airport to serve the government's plan to expand and upgrade Don Mueang Airport, he sought the air force's cooperation in permitting the development of the nearby Dhupatemiya Stadium Golf Course into a sports complex.

He also sought access through Wing 1 facilities for use by the adjacent commercial airport in Nakhon Ratchasima and to construct a ring road through Wing 41 to relieve traffic jams in downtown Chiang Mai.

The air force agreed to open up some of its facilities and golf courses for public use but noted that issues surrounding access to air force properties would need to be fleshed out before any projects can proceed.

The government's move has prompted the military to conduct surveys of their assets and commercial ventures, but few details are available to the public.

Trove of assets

The armed forces operate 212 commercial ventures for internal welfare, including shops, restaurants, and recreational sites, according to a source at the Defence Ministry. Income from internal welfare programmes is documented, but not transferred to the Finance Ministry.

Additionally, the armed forces also run 166 commercial welfare projects such as golf courses and hotels located in their barracks. Of them, 48 businesses are scrutinised or regulated under the law with their income forwarded to state coffers, while the others are "still being processed", said the source.

The military is keeping a close eye on the special House committee set up recently to push for the transfer of several businesses under the military's control to other state agencies, according to the source.

The panel, chaired by Jirayu Houngsub, spokesman for the Defence Ministry and a Pheu Thai member, has 25 members including Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, former leader of the now-defunct FFP and a staunch critic of the military.

Speculation is rife about whether the ruling party and the main opposition party are collaborating to take back control of military commercial welfare schemes -- particularly some 200 radio stations, most of which are owned by the army, and the Royal Thai Army Radio and Television, also known as TV5 HD.

The committee is scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss the military-owned broadcasting operations. It plans to request details about these ventures, including their organisational structures, executive and staff salaries, audit reports, financial statements, and revenue submissions dating back to 2017.

Politicians have long been reluctant to step on the toes of the military out of fear of a coup, but the source said the political environment now has changed.

Jirayu: Panel must be thorough

"Thanks to public sentiment, the armed forces today have to adjust and return some of their land to the government. While the government is getting higher approval ratings from the public for the military's giving in, military leaders come under fire by service members if they concede too much," said the source.

During their dinner meeting on Friday in Bangkok's Sathon area, the armed forces leaders had a heart-to-heart talk with Mr Srettha and the defence minister about the matter.

The conversation is said to have been prompted by Defence Minister Sutin Klungsang remark that Mr Srettha's policy guideline is to avoid undermining military morale as doing so could cause negative repercussions.

According to the source, Pheu Thai is cautious about challenging or offending the military. But the ruling party, which formed a coalition with conservative parties, still needs to wield some power to shore up its popularity and bolster the prime minister's image.

Delicate balancing act

Mr Jirayu said the committee must thoroughly consider the transfer of commercial welfare projects from the military to other government agencies.

"A golf course in Hua Hin, for example, is owned by the army. There are questions as to which state agency should take over the management and where the income should go. These details must be discussed as some of these projects are located in military compounds," he said.

The armed forces have been asked to justify the necessity of their commercial welfare projects and possibly compare them with similar projects in other countries, he said.

On the proposed transfer of the Sattahip Electricity Authority (SEA), currently operated by the navy, to the Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA), the defence ministry spokesman said a partial transfer is possible.

Before Sattahip was developed into a residential community, the navy ran a power generation facility for its own use. As the town grew, residents began to request more access to electricity and the SEA has since supplied power to all five tambons of Sattahip district.

Questions arise about why the navy is selling electricity, Mr Jirayu said, noting the responsibility for supplying power to the general public could be transferred to the PEA.

The Pheu Thai member said the ruling party will proceed with its agenda but this would involve evaluating various factors and recommending improvements to various laws.

MFP MP for Chachoengsao Jirat Thongsuwan, spokesman for the House committee on military affairs, said the panel's goal is to gather information to scrutinise military land and commercial operations.

He said he has low expectations regarding transferring the military's commercial ventures to other state agencies because these operations are sources of their income.

He said it would be up to the government to decide on the size of the transfer because the issue has been studied extensively.

The committee aims to delve into the military's commercial entities including the real value of these operations, he noted.

"By law, all the military-occupied land belongs to the Treasury Department, but the armed forces consider themselves to be rightful owners. It is up to the Finance Ministry to seek the hand-back," he said.

Jirat: Land belongs to Treasury Dept

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