Sub deal shows navy detached from reality


It looks as if the government is concerned that the latest bout of protests will die down too soon. Otherwise, why would it have sent in submarines to stir things up?

There seems to be no reason for the government to push for the purchase of another two Chinese-made submarines at this particular moment when the country is being rocked by anti-government protests and the people are mired in economic hardship.

It is such a surefire way to anger the people. And it's this kind of rage against the government that rubs salt into people's wounds time and again that feeds public discontent and will only end up making the protests grow.

If we eliminate stupidity as the reason, it's possible the powers-that-be have become totally insensitive to the public mood.

The government, which is closely allied with the military, has been in power for years. This domination could have lent them a sense of invulnerability and made them feel comfortable in stamping out dissent.

The purchase of the submarines is not popular with the public, but the government is sure it will be able to push it through no matter what.

This callous action is reminiscent of what the Pheu Thai government did back in 2013.

The then ruling party knew that a blanket amnesty bill to absolve everyone, protesters and authorities who were involved in the 2010 protests, would be controversial, but the government -- led by Yingluck Shinawatra -- pushed it through parliament anyway.

The results were disastrous. The brazen move led to the birth of the People's Democratic Reform Committee led by Suthep Thaugsuban, which culminated in the 2014 military coup led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The audacious subs deal could also mean that the powers-that-be are becoming too greedy.

With more rallies on the horizon, who knows what the future will bring?

Those in power probably believe that it is wiser to secure the submarines now and endure some backlash instead of waiting and risking losing them altogether.

The problem, for the navy and the government, is that they seem to be betting that the current wave of popular discontent will be transient -- with interest in it waxing and waning just like it did with the Rolex General and the Flour Minister before.

But what if it's not?

What if the subs deal turns into a new common ground that allows the moderate, even existing supporters of the government, to join forces with the protesters, who are currently seen by some as too radical?

Do not underestimate the submarine deal's power to damage.

The price tag for the two subs stands at 22.5 billion baht. The navy may say this is a bargain. But to most Thais, especially those trying to keep their businesses afloat, hanging on to their jobs or even struggling to put the next meal on the table, this is outrageous.

It does not matter whether it's a government-to-government contract or it's a package deal where we are obliged to buy two more after we had purchased one earlier.

If the navy had stood with the public and felt their hardship, it would have at least tried to renegotiate the terms, instead of eagerly pushing for the purchase.

A submarine fleet may be a "cool thing" to have for the navy. It may enhance the country's maritime security. But are we expecting Vietnam to attack anytime soon? Is there an imminent naval threat from South Korea? Or Myanmar perhaps?

The navy's security argument does not sound justified, not during normal times and even less so during this crunch period when most countries are too busy fighting the pandemic to make war.

What is even more astonishing is despite the uproar, the navy still has the gall to defend its planned purchase.

Lest the navy forgets, Thailand is suffering from possibly the worst economic downturn ever. The country's gross domestic product is forecast to contract by 8.1% this year, according to the Bank of Thailand. That's the worst among main economies across Asia, and would be the country's biggest GDP decline ever, surpassing even its plunge during the Asian financial crisis two decades ago.

Up to 8.4 million people are also at risk of unemployment because of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the National Economic and Social Development Council.

Under these dire circumstances, a good government would direct its budget to address the widespread suffering first. The same amount of 20 billion baht might not shore up the entire economy or help every person affected but it could buy quite a lot of medical equipment for example.

The subs deal with be reexamined by a House committee again next week. Whether it will be Up or Down Periscope, the shock waves could be far-reaching.

Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.