U.S. Training Thailand's Scandal-Hit Military
BANGKOK, Thailand -- More than 5,000 U.S. troops are currently training Thailand's military, coinciding with demands for the army's chief to resign and alleged financial corruption within the military be investigated after an army officer massacred 29 people in a shopping mall.
Dramatically weeping during a televised news conference, Army Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong said on February 11, "Don't blame the army" for Sgt. Jakrapanth Tomma's 17-hour rampage in Korat, a northeast city also known as Nakorn Ratchasima.
"Blame me, General Apirat."
Sgt. Jakrapanth's bloody spree ended on February 9 when security forces shot him dead in the mall after he killed 29 people.
"Throughout the whole incident, there were only criticisms of the army. I want you to know that the army is a national security organization, a sacred organization," Gen. Apirat said.
Gen. Apirat's use of the Thai word "saksit," which means "sacred," angered critics.
"He used the Thai word 'saksit', the supernatural powers that demand reverence and total submission," wrote Sanitsuda Ekachai, one of Thailand's most respected columnists.
"Disrespect or violations of such sanctity entail severe punishment, which can include deaths. Is this self-perception -- or may I say self-delusion -- behind the military's persistent intervention in politics and no-holds violence against dissenters whom they regard as 'worse than animals'?" she wrote in the Bangkok Post on February 15.
"Even military dogs are grateful to the army," Gen. Apirat said, sparking further outrage.
Gen. Apirat, son of a 1991 military coup leader, was perceived by some as a future prime minister. But his problems appear to be mounting.
The military's crisis coincides with Pentagon's massive February 25-March 6 training exercise known as 2020 Thai-U.S. Cobra Gold.
"The largest regional annual multinational military exercise in the Indo-Pacific, it is one of many annual exercises that serve as visible symbols of the U.S.-Thai defense alliance," the American Embassy in Bangkok said.
Cobra Gold will "address the full spectrum of security challenges in the Indo-Pacific."
The main training involves 5,500 U.S. troops plus security forces from Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia.
A Multinational Planning Augmentation Team (MPAT) includes Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, the Philippines and Fiji, plus this year's new participants India and China.
A Combined Observer Liaison Team (COLT) is comprised of Laos, Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar, Pakistan, Cambodia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Israel.
At least 64 fighter jets including six F-35 aircraft, and two naval ships, the USS America and USS Green Bay, will reportedly participate, and "full-scale" cyber warfare training will be offered.
Last year, Thailand's military spent more than $480 million purchasing U.S. weaponry including eight attack reconnaissance helicopters, 50 Hellfire missiles, 60 Stryker infantry carrier vehicles, 200 Advance Precision Kill Weapon System rockets, plus .50 caliber machine guns, grenade launchers and other arms and ammunition.
Gen. Apirat meanwhile promised to investigate the military's financial conflict-of-interest scandals, secretive business deals, and other alleged corruption before his scheduled retirement in September.
Military officers profiting from shady deals were expected to hinder him.
The first salvo came when the army and the Finance Ministry's Treasury Department signed a Memorandum of Understanding on February 17 to transfer the army's commercial businesses and state-owned real estate to the Finance Ministry.
The deal would allow most of the profits to flow into Thailand's treasury.
It includes more than 100 sites involving income from venues on property which the Treasury Department had been renting to the army.
Gasoline stations, shops, street markets, hotels, boxing stadiums such as the Lumpini Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, 30 golf courses, and horse racing tracks in Korat and elsewhere would be renegotiated under the agreement.
Some new arrangements would grant the army possibly 7% of the profits.
The army's slew of holdings are to be divided into two main groups: venues which were already open to public customers, and sites used only by the armed forces and their families.
"I still don't know how much the commercial entities in the army are worth," said Finance Permanent Secretary Prasong Poontanate who signed the agreement with Army Chief-of-Staff Gen. Teerawat Boonyawat at the army's headquarters.
The army also owns a large share of Thailand's radio stations and vast swaths of real estate.
The financial shift on February 17 resulted from the Korat shopping mall massacre.
That horror show began when Sgt. Jakrapanth shot dead his commanding officer and the officer's mother-in-law, during allegations that the two cheated the gunman when he purchased a house.
The army's allegedly corrupt welfare housing scheme was believed to have pushed Sgt. Jakrapanth over the edge.
The commanding officer's mother-in-law allegedly operated a real estate project which exploited soldiers who borrowed money to buy homes.
Sgt. Jakrapanth "did not receive justice from his commander and his relatives, who promised him financial returns," Gen. Apirat said.
The gunman, 32, then broke into his military base's armory in Korat by killing a guard.
Sgt. Jakrapanth stole weapons, ammunition, and a Humvee which he used during a three-hour drive through Korat when he shot dead several random people before stalking through the crowded shopping mall firing wildly, leaving a total death toll of 29.
After the attacks, Gen. Apirat said weapons at all bases would be stored separately from ammunition, and security would be tightened.
Retired military officers would be booted out of welfare housing which they had been enjoying rent-free.
Gen. Apirat however raised eyebrows when he said some senior officers would keep their post-retirement pads because they were serving the nation.
These lucky people include retired generals Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon.
"Other kinds of 'gray businesses' involving 'mafia soldiers' who benefit from illegitimate deals, or by squeezing 'protection fees' from the business sector," also need investigating, wrote Bangkok Post Assistant News Editor, Chairith Yonpiam.
Thailand's biggest political opposition, the Future Forward Party (FFP), demand an audit of the military's $580 million "off-budget" spending for the 2020 fiscal year.
The FFP also wants to cut the military's additional $4 billion budget and stop it buying expensive weaponry, including plans to purchase three submarines from China.
FFP demands the military end conscription and cut the number of generals.
Commanders of the army, navy, and air force -- plus the chief of defense forces, defense permanent secretary and the national police chief -- wield political power as state officers and as senators in the government-appointed, 250-member Senate.
The FFP and others oppose having an unelected Senate because it benefits the military-backed government led by Prime Minister Prayuth.
After participating in a 2006 coup, Mr. Prayuth led a 2014 putsch when he was army chief.
He ruled as head of a junta for five years, and was elected prime minister in 2019. He is also the current defense minister.
The military has been involved in 18 coups and attempted putsches since 1932 and has ripped up 19 constitutions, which they helped rewrite after each takeover.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" portrays a 22-year-old American female mental patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco psychiatrist.
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