Over the past week, Thailand’s decades-long aspiration to acquire submarines has been caught in yet another round of controversy (See: “Thailand Eyes Submarine Fleet”). The country’s junta-led government has had to fend off allegations that it deliberately approved a deal to purchase a submarine from China at a cabinet meeting without officially announcing it to conceal details from the public. Though this itself will not stop the deal from going through, it is nonetheless a self-inflicted wound that reveals how tone-deaf the current government can be even in handling an issue that is clearly a priority for it amid the public scrutiny it continues to generate.
In a surprise move back in June 2015, the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) elected to buy three submarines from China in what would be one of the most expensive single acquisitions in the country’s history (See: “How Did China Just Win Thailand’s New Submarine Bid?”). Since then, although the debate about the wider strategic significance of the billion-dollar deal has continued, the proposed purchase itself has been repeatedly delayed.
But as I indicated earlier this year, indications were that we would finally see some progress on this front in 2017. Officials had indicated that money had already been allocated within the 2017 defense budget. And the RTN also released a reference price document with specifications regarding the purchase of the first of the three submarines – priced at 13.5 billion Thai baht ($376 million) including weapons systems, spare parts, technology transfer, and other items, with the total program reaching over $1.1 billion dollars (See: “When Are China’s Submarines Coming to Thailand?”).
Yet controversy erupted Monday when local media outlets revealed that although a defense ministry spokesman disclosed that the cabinet had approved the decision last Tuesday, no public announcement had been made earlier about the approval when it had first occurred. The approval was not included in cabinet meeting minutes, which are traditionally published and posted on the government website after they occur.
Though Thai officials rushed to deny that such a lack of transparency was intended, their attempts to quell the speculation only intensified it. Defense Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich said the government had no intention to conceal the issue but that not all issues approved by the cabinet had to be communicated to the press, especially since the government had already announced its intention to make the purchase earlier on.
While he was right that reporters were generally aware that the purchase would go ahead, as I had previously noted, that did not address the issue of why they were not informed of the approval as soon as it occurred given the controversy the deal has generated. Contrary to what Kongcheep tried to portray and irrespective of what the government would like, the submarine purchase has become far from just another issue. More importantly, this sort of response did little to quell fears that the junta was deliberately trying to conceal information about a controversial deal so it would not have to face public scrutiny.
Meanwhile, government spokesman Lt Gen Sansern Kaewkumnerd, who usually briefs reporters after cabinet meetings, suggested that the issue was not included in the briefing because it was classified as top secret. That was an odd suggestion since, as Kongcheep had suggested, the government had already made details of the purchase known before.
The incident only exacerbated lingering concerns about the submarine purchase, which has long been controversial in Thailand for various reasons. Some of this is rooted in the common refrain that submarines are not needed in a country with shallow surrounding waters, or that other capabilities, such as patrol vessels, are needed more urgently. With the more recent purchase, others contend that the high cost is unjustified given the challenging economic climate the country is facing.
Given the fact that this is a junta-led government, the suggestion that individual services in the Thai military are advancing purchases that further their own narrow ambitions, as opposed to Thailand’s national interests, has gained even more traction (though, to be fair, defense hikes have been more modest than they are being made out to be) (See: “The Truth About Thailand’s 2017 Defense Budget ‘Hike’”). And with the allegations of lack of transparency, some have been quick to cast this as part of a military government’s ignorance of the views of its people and its broader disregard for democracy and human rights.
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon once again defended the deal as being sensible for Thailand. In doing so, he repeated the same arguments he has used to push for submarines in the past, such as their role in helping Thailand protect its natural resources in the Andaman Sea and the fact that Bangkok’s neighbors also have submarines (a claim that, while true, only strengthens the argument made by naysayers that the purchase is rooted less in prudent decisions about military capabilities than they are in the all-too-familiar ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ tendency among Southeast Asian militaries).
But all this misses the point. Irrespective of how valid individual lines of argument may be, with its careless handling of the disclosure of the submarine purchase approval, the government has only handed its opponents yet more fodder for their criticism. And though there can be reasonable debates on the wisdom of the purchase itself, the same cannot be said for the need for proper disclosure as to how it is being dealt with. As The Bangkok Post’s deputy editor Soonruth Bunyamanee put it in a fiery column Wednesday, “While the pros and cons of buying subs are debatable, the thing that cannot be compromised on is the transparency of the procurement process.”
As for the purchase itself, all signs are that it will nonetheless go ahead. Thailand’s navy chief Na Arreenich is expected to visit China soon to finalize it. The first submarine is expected to be delivered within the next six years, with two more expected over the next decade or so – a more extended timeline than initially envisioned partly to ease the financial concerns that opponents had initially cited. If the Thai government continues to handle this the way it has over the past week, those years will feel much longer than they need to be for those who watch this space closely.