BANGKOK - Thailand's armed forces have made budget cuts and suspended artillery purchases, as millions of Thais suffering from the adverse economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak await cash handouts from the government.
The Thai army was the latest branch of the armed forces to slash its 2020 budget on Wednesday (April 22) by about 10 billion baht (S$441 million), out of the total of 18 billion baht cut by the Defence Ministry.
It also halved its planned 900 million baht procurement of over 100 Stryker armoured infantry carriers from the United States and suspended purchases of other artillery, army spokesman Winthai Suvaree told a press briefing.
"It's a high figure compared to other ministries. All the non-committal budgets have been cut," said Colonel Winthai Suvaree.
The government has asked each ministry to cut its non-urgent and non-committal spending by at least 10 per cent.
The army's announcement came amid a huge backlash against its plan to continue to procure more armaments. A document signed on Monday to procure 50 armoured vehicles and related technical services worth 4.5 billion baht was found on the website of the procurement unit of the army's Ordnance Department.
The Thai-language hashtag, whose mild translation to "armoured vehicle your father" belies its expletive connotations, has been the country's top trending hashtag on Twitter since late on Tuesday, with over 600,000 tweets in less than 24 hours.
Many criticised the decision in light of reports of millions of people struggling to survive while being left out of the government's 5,000 baht per month relief programme.
"It is very bad timing. It shows a lack of sensitivity and understanding of the plight and suffering of the people during this hard time," said Dr Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist at Thammasat University.
Acknowledging the backlash, deputy army spokesman Col Sirichan Ngathong said: "There have been various opinions expressed on social media that are not based on facts. Please extend fairness to the army, which is determined to transfer a part of our budget to help the people.
"It is clear that the army is one of the top agencies working to protect and take care of the people amid the Covid-19 situation," she added, citing how the army has been spraying disinfectant at various places, delivering relief packages from the royal family, and manning border checkpoints.
Last Saturday, the navy announced a whopping 33 per cent cut of its 2020 budget worth 4.1 billion baht, while postponing its purchase of two submarines from China worth 22 billion baht to next year.
Last week, the air force announced a cut of 23 per cent of its budget worth 3.3 billion baht and the deferment of the purchases of at least 14 aircraft worth a combined 7.64 billion baht to next year.
The growing defence budget since the 2006 coup and the artillery purchasing spree since the 2014 coup have been heavily scrutinised and criticised in recent years, due in part to the now-defunct Future Forward Party's campaigns for military reform.
The defence budget doubled from 85.9 billion baht in 2006 to 170 billion baht in 2009, and continued to grow to 227 billion baht in 2019. This year's budget declined by 0.1 per cent following pressure by the opposition.
Defence Ministry spokesman Lieutenant-General Kongcheep Tantravanich told The Straits Times the budget has largely stabilised when compared with the country's GDP, and that Thailand had the capacity to acquire more armaments to increase its defence capabilities during normal times.
"It is common that as a country grows, its defence has to be strengthened. We are not buying more than we need," he said.
Saying the cuts were a result of a "reluctant" decision amid growing pressure, Dr Paul Chambers, an expert on the Thai army at Naresuan University, said: "The real reason the military wants more weapons and a larger budget is to enhance its relative power over other bureaucracies and expand and sustain the clout across the country."
Despite the budget cuts and the deferred armament purchases, analysts say the move is too little too late in terms of restoring public trust in the army.
The army's reputation took a beating in recent incidents such as the killing of 29 people in a mass shooting by a rogue soldier in north-eastern Thailand in February, which was allegedly fuelled by financial exploitation by his superior. Other incidents include a Covid-19 outbreak at an army-run boxing stadium in Bangkok in early March, and a drug suspect being beaten to death by seven soldiers last week.
"I think it (public trust) is the lowest point since 1973. What the public need is the military reform - a more transparent, democratic and accountable armed forces. The culture of impunity that is pervasive in the army becomes a serious issue and a public concern," said Dr Prajak.