Last week, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha found himself defending a tank deal in the country’s legislature. The development was just the latest manifestation of the challenge that the ruling government in Thailand has faced in terms of rising scrutiny over defense-related issues even as the country looks to make inroads in its military modernization plans to address a range of security issues.
As I have noted before in these pages, while Thailand has had one of the higher levels of defense spending within Southeast Asia, it has also generally lagged behind the regional average percentage-wise in terms of government expenditures and GDP, despite the manifold security challenges that it needs to address. When a military junta came to power in May 2014, led by Prayut Chan-o-cha who now has both the prime minister and defense minister portfolios, it struggled to get the military budget increases it desired due to a range of factors, including economic underperformance and related domestic scrutiny.
Last week, we saw another manifestation of this with Prayut’s defense of a tank deal. Prayut had to respond to a series of questions raised regarding the Thai government’s procurement of tanks from Ukraine, one of the higher-profile line items in Thailand’s military budget which had experienced several delays over the years.
According to The Bangkok Post, Prayut had to defend the purchase of Ukraine tanks under the scrutiny of questions raised by Pheu Thai member of parliament Saranwut Saranket during a censure debate. Per the report, Saranwut had asked for specifics on the deal, including why it was not done as a government to government transaction, and if Ukraine had been fined for the four-year delay in delivery. This came amid broader concerns, including regarding the junta’s intentions with respect to Thailand’s defense capabilities as well as its decisionmaking.
Prayut provided clarifications on the deal, noting that an initial discussion for a government to government contract “was dropped,” with the deal then done through a company acting as a country representative. He added that the delay was because of conflicts ongoing in Ukraine, and that a recent visit to Ukraine by Prayut and other officials was not for the sole purpose of inspecting tanks. Beyond that, he countered allegations that the army was building up its capabilities in preparation for a future coup, noting that some of the inroads on military modernization were done within the available budget and with a view on long-term maintenance, saving on resources and manpower, and delivering better performance. Beyond what Prayut said, Deputy Defense Minister Chaichan Changmongkol also reinforced Thailand’s needs for tanks given its aging capabilities and noted that the tank procurement objective had begun even before the Thai junta took power in a May 2014 coup.
Irrespective of the merits of the government’s arguments with respect to the tank deal itself, the controversy was just one manifestation of the broader challenge that the it faces in making inroads in the country’s military modernization amid some of the political issues that it confronts. And given what we have seen so far, one can expect this scrutiny to continue, with real implications not only for certain line items in Thailand’s defense budget, but also for its actual capabilities and how it confronts its manifold security challenges moving forward.