By The Nation
Modernisation of the military in the post-Cold War era is a tricky business for the Thai Armed Forces.
Back in the days of the Cold War, explaining to the public who the bad guys were was not difficult. Often, the conflict was painted as a war between the free world and the communists.
Now the communist threat is a thing of the past. In fact the drafters of the country’s defence doctrine are no longer permitted to point to the communist countries and forces in the neighbourhood.
But for defence planners, the end of communism does not mean an end to military modernisation. In their view and outlook, the country must be prepared at all times, hence the need to upgrade military hardware.
In the West, the task of explaining threat perceptions to the general public falls on military personnel. Soldiers, whether they like it or not, are supposed to follow orders and accept the idea of civilian supremacy.
In Thailand, after successive coups, it has become clear that the military and politics are inseparable. Even when Thailand had an elected government, the task of justifying to the public as to why the Armed Forces must have new military hardware was largely left to the country’s top brass. Naturally, such a task required a high degree of sensitivity because we don’t want to upset our neighbours, some of whom were our enemies.
The job of explaining to the public also requires some degree of sophistication. In other words, a general must be able to the convince the public why their hard-earned tax baht should be spent on military hardware, for instance the controversial recent procurement of a submarine.
Thailand is poised to purchase two more submarines from China. The Cabinet has approved the decision but the manner in which the current junta has pushed the project through has raised questions on lack of transparency.
Anti-corruption advocates, this past week, asked the government to provide details of the procurement process. They raised the case with the Auditor-General’s Office and demanded that such details be made available to the public.
The reactions from the government, in particular a comment by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, has aggravated matters. Prawit, also the defence minister, rejected the public’s need to know the full details of the Bt13.4-billion procurement of the
initial Yuan-class S26T submarine.
The government is looking to get three submarines at a total cost of
Bt26 billion to be paid over 11 years.
General Prawit insisted the deal was a good one. He said Thailand would get three subs for the price of one and that the Navy would be using its own money for the purchase, not from the central budget.
Prawit cannot deny that eventually it is still the people’s money that is being spent and the government should do better than just state the money was coming from the Navy’s budget.
The government will have to convince the people why the country needs submarines in the first place.
One long-standing explanation by the Armed Forces is that our neighbours have them and therefore we too should. That still doesn’t answer the question as to why the country needs them.
Anti-corruption entities and the Auditor-General's Office can examine the technicalities behind the procurement to look for irregularities.
But military modernisation is much more than about technicalities and proper procurement procedure. It is about the country’s defence doctrine and security needs.
Instead of telling the public that the use of their money is none of their business, our policymakers and defence planners must lay out the Armed Forces’ long-term objective.
In some way, this is much more difficult given the fact that these planners and policymakers are not permitted to point out a specific country as posing a threat to national security.
The country is currently confronted with a deadly insurgency in the far South that has so far claimed nearly 7,000 lives since January 2004. The country’s counter-insurgency doctrine has no need for submarines, which are used in conventional warfare, not against village-based militants looking to carve out a separate homeland for their people.