Thai Junta Demands Budget Increase
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Thailand’s Council for National Security (CNS), the military junta that overthrew the civilian government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006, announced a budget increase request of $9.3 billion to be presented to the next democratically elected government.
Elections are scheduled for Dec. 23. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was dismantled after the coup, but regrouped as the People’s Power Party and is putting up strong opposition in the upcoming election.
The budget, if approved by the next government, will cover purchases in two five-year phases from 2008-2018. The military is asking for an increase from the current 1.5 percent to 1.8 percent of GDP for the first five years and up to 2 percent GDP during the second phase.
The CNS has been on a spending spree while in power. The defense budget had been capped at $2.9 billion annually since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, but coup leaders have increased it by 66 percent.
The increase will include submarines, fighter jets, missiles and overall modernization programs for all three services. The CNS announced in October a decision to procure 12 Swedish-built Saab Gripen multirole fighters and two Saab Erieye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft for $1.1 billion.
In September, CNS announced a $242 million procurement deal for 96 Ukrainian BTR-3E1 armored personnel carriers, 992 Israeli submachine guns and 15,000 assault rifles, and an unspecified number of Chinese surface-to-surface missiles.
There are no guarantees the next civilian-led government will approve the budget request, but sources in Bangkok said the military will have a strong enough hand in politics to push much of the budget through.
Zachary Abuza, who teaches Southeast Asian politics at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, believes that most of the weapons are unnecessary for Thailand’s defense and are not what is needed to fight a growing insurgency in the south.
“Saab Gripen fighters, submarines and new-generation Chinese surface-to-surface missiles are exactly what one [does not] need to fight an insurgency. In fact, that’s why they have failed so dismally in the past three years,” Abuza said. “For 30 years now, Thailand’s weapon purchases have been completely devoid of the reality of the security threats to the country. The submarines are for prestige and keeping up with the Joneses. Singapore and Malaysia and China all have them.
“What Thailand really needs is to have a better equipped and highly mobile force that is competently trained to deal with insurgency in the south and spill-over/border infractions everywhere else,” he said. “The only thing that makes any sense in the recent arms purchases are some more armored [personnel carriers] — I have yet to see them in the south — and the Israeli assault rifles.”
The upcoming elections are expected to ease U.S. restrictions on military aid to Thailand. The United States suspended $24 million in military aid and canceled military education programs after the coup. But annual joint U.S.-Thai military exercises, Cobra Gold, Cope Tiger and CARAT, went forward this year.
However, U.S. pressure has only helped to push Bangkok and Beijing closer. Shortly after the coup, China’s ambassador quickly recognized the new government, and coup leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin visited Beijing in January for four days. China extended $40 million in military aid and began a military education program for Thai officers in China.
In July, Thailand and China conducted the first joint military exercise, code-named Strike 2007, in Guangzhou, China. The two-week special forces joint anti-terrorism exercise included jungle warfare, helicopter assault, and a simulated raid and hostage rescue.
In the past, Beijing has allowed Bangkok to buy weapons on barter. In 2005, Thailand bought 96 Chinese NORINCO WMZ-55B1 six-wheel-drive armored personnel carriers at $300,000 each in exchange for 100,000 tons of dried logan fruit.
China’s Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan visited Thailand last week for four days. He met with CNS President Prem Tinsulandona and Defense Minister Boonrawd Somtat. Cao discussed additional military-to-military cooperation and was invited to the Royal Parade that commemorated King Bhumibol Aduyadej’s 80th birthday.