Thai govt's defence spending under scrutiny in budget debate

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaking at Parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 25, 2019. The ruling coalition currently has a razor-thin majority in the Lower House.
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaking at Parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 25, 2019. The ruling coalition currently has a razor-thin majority in the Lower House.PHOTO: REUTERS

Ruling coalition, with slim majority, defends higher expenditure, purchases of armaments

Defence spending was a bone of contention in Thailand's Lower House of Parliament yesterday as it continued debating an annual budget Bill that has become a key test for the government and the ruling coalition, which has a razor-thin majority in Parliament.

The government defended the growing defence budget and a recent purchase spree of armaments during the second day of debate on the first reading of the budget Bill.

Defence spending has risen to 233 billion baht (S$10.5 billion) this year, a 2.7 per cent increase from the figure last year.

But when it comes to the defence budget as a proportion of the overall budget, the figure has actually been on the decline, argued Deputy Defence Minister Chaichan Changmongkon.

It was 7.29 per cent this year, down from 7.59 per cent last year.

"In 1997, before the financial crisis, it was at about 12 per cent," said General Chaichan.

Since the 2014 coup, the Thai army has bought helicopters from Russia and the United States, as well as tanks, armoured vehicles and submarines from China, amounting to tens of billions of baht.

The US approved its sale of 60 Stryker armoured vehicles to Thailand in July this year, with the first 10 delivered last month.

Mr Sirasak Lerdduaylarp, a Pheu Thai MP from Pak Chong district in Nakhon Ratchasima province, said: "Most of my constituents are farmers and these purchases upset me the most. The budget should rather be spent on agricultural machinery, not on something that doesn't benefit them at all."

Gen Chaichan defended the purchases, saying more than half of the Thai armed forces' artillery, at 40 to 50 years old, are outdated and long past their lifespan of 30 years.

 
 
 

Such weapons are crucial even though the country is no longer engaged in international warfare, Gen Chaichan said, citing the borders of thousands of kilometres that Thailand shares with its neighbours.

"There's no certainty that conflicts will not erupt. If the country is secure, this would lead to foreign investors' confidence and ultimately benefit the country's economy."

The government faces its first real test with the vote on the overall budget Bill, which is expected late today. The ruling coalition, comprising 17 parties, controls 250 seats in the Lower House, only seven more than the opposition.

Analysts expect the Bill to pass with a slim majority at the end of its current three-day session, warning that a new round of political conflict could erupt otherwise.

Dr Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science professor at Sukhothai Thammathirat University just outside Bangkok, told The Straits Times: "In terms of politics, such a failure could dampen both domestic and international confidence in the parliamentary system and this administration, which could trigger a new round of political conflict."

At 3.2 trillion baht, the proposed budget Bill is the biggest in Thailand's history, 200 billion baht more than last year's.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha spent nearly two hours on Thursday outlining the budget and his administration's economic policies, saying sluggish economic growth in the first half of this year would pick up in the second half.

Since the 2014 coup, the Thai army has bought helicopters from Russia and the United States, as well as tanks, armoured vehicles and submarines from China, amounting to tens of billions of baht.

The US approved its sale of 60 Stryker armoured vehicles to Thailand in July this year, with the first 10 delivered last month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2019, with the headline 'Thai govt's defence spending under scrutiny in budget debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe