Thai Military: Do as We Say, Not as We Do

Last week, a spokesman for Thailand’s Constitution Drafting Commission said the junta is considering new mechanisms to aid the National Anti-Corruption Commission in its mission to crack down on graft at the local level.

Allegedly widespread corruption, along with political chaos, was the military’s rationale for its May 22, 2014 coup that brought down the democratically elected government headed by then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The current government, headed by former Army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha – who appointed himself Prime Minister – has gone on a mission to clean out the decades-old corruption in Thailand’s often-disreputable government operations. Yingluck herself remains in the dock, accused of corruption in a vast rice-subsidy scheme that went wrong during her period in office.

The military’s plans, however, have been complicated by allegations that arose last week over profiteering by the former Army Commander-in-Chief Udomedj Sitabutr, now deputy defense minister. Current commander Thirachai Narkvanich is attempting to rein in a probe into the construction of the grandiose, Bt1 billion (US$27.9 million) Rajabhakti Museum Park in Hua Hin, designed to honor Thailand’s seven Chakri kings, and the fortune spent on bronze castings of the seven monarchs.

"The hypocrisy of the National Committee for Peace and Order (the Junta) and the military is really hard to stomach,” said a longtime Thai political analyst. “They launch their coups making high-minded sounds about eradicating corruption when they are just as corrupt as the elected politicians that they displace and claim to despise. The Rajabhakti Park is just the latest example of classic military corruption where top people order an expensive product and then take a slice of the cost right off the top for themselves, like the fat boy at the birthday party who demands the first piece of cake. The only reason that military corruption is not ever fully exposed is that the ones who are doing it have guns – which is something they don't let anyone forget."

In fact, if there is one outfit that will face no charges of corruption, it is the military itself, despite the allegations against Thirachai. It never has. Many generals including Prayuth’s own brother Preecha Chan Ocha have accumulated wealth into the millions, far beyond what they could possibly have earned from their own salaries. Preecha declared assets of at least Bt90 million (US$2.51 million) in his personal accounts when he was made a member of the National Security Council.

There is growing irritation over the hypocrisy of the generals, who for instance have kept an elderly couple, Udom Siri-on and his wife, Daeng, imprisoned after having been arrested in 2010 for collecting wild mushrooms in the Dong Ranang National Park and ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison. Udom eventually was freed but his wife remains in prison despite a widespread social media campaign to get the sentences reduced.

In the meantime, Surayud Chulanont, the former army chief and onetime prime minister following the coup that erased onetime Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s regime, allegedly breached the National Forest Reserves Act himself by illegally owning forest land and building what was described as a gigantic house in the Yaithiang Mountain preserve in Nakhon Ratchasima Province. Ultimately after demonstrations, he returned the land to the forestry department. To calls for his resignation as a Privy Councillor, it was determined that Surayud “had no ill intention" and that it was highly inappropriate to ask for his ouster on such unreasonable ground.

“When that poor old couple were farming out some mushrooms, really small, without even a fence in a natural reserve area, they took them to jail,” an angry Thai source told Asia Sentinel. “But when the ex-army chief invaded the mountain, a national reserve as well, and built a huge house, he said a few words like ‘I didn’t know. He returned to the government and he is still walking free and no one is allowed to talk about this.”

While the military began a crackdown in January, grinding small on unlicensed vendors and hawkers at the country’s famed beach resorts, billing the move as a post-coup strategy to tackle corruption, costing hundreds of people their jobs, it continues to use a bogus mine detector tht could get soldiers blown up despite the fact that its developer, a UK con man named Gary Bolton, went to jail for seven years in 2013 for manufacturing fake devices. The GT200 mine detector has cost the government and security forces the equivalent of US$30 million, the bulk of which is believed to have gone into generals’ pockets. The devices, which cost almost nothing to make, cost the Thai military US$16,670 each.

The GT200 is still in use despite the fact that a test run at the behest of former Prime Minister discovered the devices worked only four times in 20 tests, even below the law of probability.

“Do not say the GT200 used as a bomb detector in the far south does not work," Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat said in 2010. "It has often detected explosives. If it can detect a bomb just once, it is worth it."

The black devices include a small rectangular plastic box topped with a plastic cylinder, which can be gripped by hand. An insertable "detection card" which supposedly makes the device sensitive to explosives or drugs, is a useless paper card, according to experts. A shiny, collapsible, radio-style metal antenna sticks out of the plastic cylinder and swivels, purportedly when detecting something.

During security checks, nervous troops are ordered to slowly wave the device—making its antenna randomly sway. That has failed to detect bombs on passenger trains, roads, and in vehicles in the war-torn south.

That is hardly the only questionable purchase of military equipment. In the 1980s, with the then-commander in chief’s wife reportedly the agent for purchases of military hardware – although it was never proven – the Thais bought Chinese fighter jets whose engine life was so short they had to be towed back and forth from the flight line to squeeze more flight time. The military also bought armored personnel carriers from the Chinese that were so substandard, according to an Indian military attache in a private conversation, that light could be seen around the welds that held the units together.

In July, an international outcry finally forced a court in Phuket to acquit two local journalists and their online news organization on charges of defaming the navy because they reprinted quotes from a prize-winning Reuters article on human trafficking that repeated allegations made by a smuggler that naval forces accepted money to turn a blind eye to the seaborne trafficking of refugees from Myanmar. Reuters wasn’t sued over the report, part of a series about persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority that won Reuters the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Reuters was not sued.

Given this long string of events, and plenty more, it’s hardly likely that a serious graft investigation is going to be opened against Udomdej. Indeed, Thirachai told reporters this week that an army fact-finding panel had found no evidence of irregularities.