Cuts loom for Thai military

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 1997, 12:00am

TALK is cheap. When pressed, Thailand's top generals will readily concede that the economic crisis requires every patriot to tighten their belts.

Nevertheless few people believe the country's prickly military will easily give up its hefty annual purchases of shiny equipment spiced with 'consultancy fees'.

This puts the Government in a quandary: it desperately wants to save money without hurting the spending on education and infrastructure that is vital to reviving the economy.

Yet to ask the military to make significant cuts would be to encroach into territory that no civilian government has ever dared cross.

Few Thais expect to see tanks rolling into Bangkok in the near future, though a country that has seen 17 coups or attempted coups since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy six decades ago can be forgiven a few rumours.

The military has traditionally taken it upon itself to throw out corrupt and incompetent governments. It did so last in 1991, when prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan's notoriously corrupt 'buffet Cabinet' was ousted - to quiet cheers from the public.

A tainted name was never a bar to politics in Thailand, however. The ageing Mr Chatichai now heads the Chart Pattana party in the current coalition.

But that military clique misjudged the public mood when it attempted to engineer a post-coup political future for itself and, with a massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1992, may have permanently pushed the military on to the political sidelines.

For the past five years the generals have been content to pursue business and pleasure while promoting the idea that Thailand should still be at the forefront of a regional arms race triggered by China.

The military establishment made no public complaints when Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh declared in January that state spending would have to be slashed by US$4 billion (HK$30.96 billion) a year - mainly by delaying arms purchases.

If the generals were surprisingly relaxed about this, the reason was clear: the 'delays' were only of tentative purchases like a military satellite.

But since then the continued decline in the economy has forced the Government to ask the International Monetary Fund to rescue Thailand. Real cuts will now be much harder to avoid.

The generals may yet bow with good grace to the inevitable: to do otherwise would be to increase the chances that a relatively unsympathetic government will come to power.

The Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, Robert Karniol, says: 'One would like to think the armed forces could use the situation to improve their efficiency.

'They have been hooked on the idea that every problem can be overcome by buying more equipment. But there is a big difference between buying fancy hardware and knowing how to use it.'