Submarine row threatens to become political time bomb

Hardware

Debate on whether Thailand needs submarines is raging again after a House subcommittee on budget scrutiny last Friday voted 5-4 along party lines to back the Navy’s Bt22.5-billion plan to buy two more China-made subs.

That was in addition to the Yuan Class S26T submarine the Royal Thai Navy ordered from China in 2017 for Bt13.5 billion, to be delivered in 2024. Altogether, the three submarines will cost Bt36 billion.

Approved by General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s post-coup government in April 2017, the deal for the subs triggered public anger over Navy and military shopping sprees for expensive hardware.

Now, flak is also being directed at the government for allowing the splurge on costly war weapons at a time when the economy is mired in the COVID-19 crisis.

With opposition to the submarine deal growing, the issue threatens to become a political time bomb for Prayut’s government.

The hot potato has been tossed to the House of Representatives’ 72-member committee tasked with scrutinizing the budget bill for fiscal 2021. The panel on Wednesday postponed its debate on the subs’ purchase until Friday (August 28) to hear additional testimony from the Navy. Its vote on whether to approve the budget is expected next Monday (August 31), according to a source.

The postponement – described by opposition politicians as a delay tactic – came after seven panel members from the coalition Democrat Party decided not to support the submarine purchase plan.

The Cabinet and coalition parties enjoy a healthy majority on the panel of 48 members to the opposition’s 24.

With the meeting put off and further lobbying likely, the government seems unlikely to back down over the submarine purchase. Some observers view this as a risky move, which will hand momentum to its detractors and anti-government protesters. It will provide the protesters with more ammunition against the government at their next rally.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who doubles as defence minister, has shown no eagerness to defuse the political time bomb. On Wednesday he remained firm that submarines are needed to protect the country’s marine resources.

“[Submarines] are not meant for combat with any country. They are a strategic weapon to protect sovereignty,” he said, adding that, “everybody will be held responsible for the consequences” of failure to procure the “strategic weapon”.

Submarines are ‘low priority’  

Critics question whether billions should be spent on military hardware at a time when money is urgently needed to solve economic problems wrought by coronavirus.

Although COVID-19 has been largely contained in the country, the fallout includes rising unemployment and shrinking revenues from exports and tourism – the country’s two main money spinners.

Thai netizens are now engaged in furious debate over whether the country needs subs at this time of economic crisis. The hashtag “#CitizensDoNotWantSubmarines” began trending on Thai Twitter earlier this week.

Former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij, who now leads the Kla Party, views submarines as “unnecessary” at a time when economic crisis has seen gross domestic product drop as much as 12 per cent from last year.

“I understand there are needs over security. But at this moment, the government should spend the money it has in hand on helping people who are suffering the worst, including small businesses and vendors,” his Facebook post read on Sunday (August 23).

Korn said the money earmarked for the two additional submarines was enough to give a subsidy of Bt100,000 each to more than 200,000 small-businesses.

Seeking to defend the deal, the Navy held a press conference on Monday. Acquisition of the three subs was part of a strategy to protect the Kingdom’s marine interests estimated at Bt24 trillion a year, it said.

Thailand used to have a fleet of four submarines – all built in Japan – but these were decommissioned in 1951, according to the Navy.

Naval Comptroller-General Vice Admiral Tirakul Kanchana told the press that the two additional submarines were included in the deal to buy the first one, and were not a new procurement. Thailand is paying Bt13.5 billion in instalments between 2017 and 2023 for the first sub. The Bt22.5-billion payment for two more subs will be divided into seven annual instalments of Bt2.5 billion to Bt3.5 billion, using the Navy’s regular annual budget, not extra funds, he said.

Murky deal? 

A Navy spokesman also slammed opposition Pheu Thai MP Yutthapong Charassathien for alleging that the Navy’s submarine procurement contract was not a genuine government-to-government deal. Deputy chief-of-staff Vice Admiral Prachachat Sirisawat said the politician’s claim was untrue and politically motivated. He accused the MP of distorting facts, causing division and creating hatred toward the military.

“The Navy’s G-to-G purchase was done transparently. It’s the G-to-G rice deal done by Pheu Thai that was fake,” the Navy spokesman said.

He was referring to bogus government-to-government rice export deals supposedly with China, which led to lengthy jail terms for two Cabinet members of Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai-led government.

Responding to the press conference, PM Prayut said on Tuesday that “the Navy has its reason and necessity” in buying submarines.

He called on the House budget scrutiny committee to “ensure fairness” when considering the Navy’s budget proposal.

In July last year, the PM implied that one submarine was insufficient for naval missions. “Do you think buying only one sub is enough? What if it needs repair or maintenance?” he said.

Military’s Bt196-billion bill

The armed forces have requested a combined budget of Bt196 billion for fiscal 2021, slightly less than the Bt204 billion taken this year.

Of that total, Bt48.2 billion has been set aside for the Navy, Bt107.6 billion for the Army, and Bt40.1 billion for the Air Force.

A large part of the Navy’s budget is earmarked to purchase the two submarines, with another Bt900 million to build a submarine port.

The Army’s shopping list for the next fiscal year includes 50 Stryker armoured vehicles at a price of Bt4.5 billion, 155mm howitzers at Bt2 billion, 105mm howitzers at Bt900 million, aircraft worth Bt1.3 billion, and VT-4 tanks with a price tag of Bt1.6 billion.

The Air Force plans to buy 12 trainer aircraft worth Bt5.2 billion and two T-50 trainer jets costing Bt2.4 billion.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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