Sunday, October 21, 2007

Swedish toys for Thailand's generals - the Burma angle

Reuters (via Fonzi's blog) reports that Thailand's air force has agreed to buy six Swedish-made JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets from Sweden's Saab for about half a billion US dollars. A second-phase purchase of roughly equivalent size is planned within the next ten years.

As it happens, there's a Burma-angle to this report. And it highlights the fundametal problem here.

Just the other day, Thailand's prime minister Surayud Chulanont said that Thailand's unelected interim government was in no "moral" position to approve punitive measures against the Burmese junta following the crackdown. By the Thai prime minister's own logic, surely a military-junta appointed interim government has no business authorizing major long-term defense expenditures. Now there's a conflict of interest!

The Thai media have shown little interest in covering this story, but Fonzi at Thailand Jumped the Shark writes, "do the math, it comes out roughly to $90 million plus change a plane. Ninety million is a lot of money for one fighter craft " Fonzi has done some serious digging (his comments page is also informative), and Bangkok Pundit provides further context.

"What's good for the Thai military is good for Thailand" has been the unspoken motto of Thailand since last years coup. Alarmingly, the Thai media seems to have swallowed this line. This jet fighter procurement is but the latest -- though possibly the most egregious -- example in recent months of the Thai military taking care of its own priorities first.

Does Thailand need these fighter jets? One justification by the military for the purchase of new jets could be the insurgency in Southern Thailand. One might well ask whether Thailand's generals now need the Southern insurgency in so far as they need excuses to justify initiatives that could increase their power and line their pockets. One historical analogy to the present juncture is the Thai military's role in stoking and exaggerating the communist insurgency of the 1970s. A misguided policy served to expand the Thai military and empower and enrich Thai generals at the expense of civil society. Another -- contemporary -- analogy might be present-day Burma. Some speculate that Burma's junta chooses not to completely defeat Burma's own ethnic insurgencies in order that the junta might justify its expansive budgets and repressive policies.

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