Monday review: Red Bull, airship and National Strategic Plan

The name Gen Anupong Paojinda turned up in various controversies last week. For those who might not know him, he was a former Commander-in-Chief of the Army and now is the Interior Minister and advisor to the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). 
 
He is also one of the “3 Big Brothers of NCPO”, together with Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan. 
 
 
Gen Anupong Paojinda (Photo from Manager)
 
Unlike the other two brothers who are always in fights with the media, Anupong seems to be a quiet person who talks only as Minister of the Interior. But when criticism turns on him, he responds with ‘style’.
 
The first controversy that Anupong faced last week was a leaked Interior Ministry document.  This gave permission for Huai Mek community forest in Khon Kaen to be turned over to KTD Property Development Ltd, a company in the Red Bull empire, to build a reservoir for its beverage factory. The document was in fact just a memorandum but became an official order with Anupong’s signature of approval on it. 
 
The document states that no local people opposed the land transfer since the forest was in a dry area yielding no benefit to the surrounding population. But after the leaked document went viral, villagers who rely on Huai Mek forest protested the order, saying that Huai Mek was a fertile forest and officials had never asked the villagers or held any public hearings on the issue.
 
In response, Anupong said on 12 September that he had never received any document about local opposition; if he had known that there was just one individual opposing the land transfer, he would never have approved it. Anupong subsequently revoked the land transfer and also initiated an internal investigation to find the officials responsible for not telling him about the land dispute.
 
Anupong came under more criticism last week because of what he did when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Army. On 14 September, the Royal Thai Army decommissioned a 350-million-baht surveillance airship after only eight years in operation. Anupong had approved the purchase of the airship when he was in charge of the Army.
 
The airship was criticised for its ineffectiveness long before it was decommissioned. It was bought in late 2009 to operate in the Deep South of Thailand with operations scheduled to start on 15 January 2010.  But this had to be cancelled due to a “technical problem.”  
 
The army fixed the newly-bought airship and finally made it fly on 5 March 2010, but at an altitude of only one kilometre, lower than the stated specification of three kilometres. So the blimp could not be used for reconnaissance missions as at one kilometre it was too low to escape ground fire.
 
But the military did not give up. When Gen Prayut was Army Commander-in-Chief, he paid a private company 50 million baht a year to maintain the airship. On 5 September 2014, however, the airship had to make an emergency landing in a rice field in Pattani after a control system failure.
 
Apart from the airship, the Army under Anupong also bought the bogus GT200 bomb detectors. These devices, which were later discovered to do nothing, cost 900,000 baht to 1.2 million baht each. A total of 772 devices were purchased. When the deals were done, Thailand had spent more than 1 billion baht.
 
When the media questioned Anupong about the airship, his response was similar to the Red Bull case – pass the buck to someone else.
 
“I retired long ago so I can’t tell, if there’s been a change in the operational condition of the surveillance airship, how anything can be done. Because, during the procurement process, I was not the person who directly considered this, there has to be an investigation of everyone involved.  You can’t investigate only what happened during my term,” Anupong told the media.
 
He also encouraged people to initiate an investigation into the issue, adding that all relevant personnel, from those who drafted the contract to the airship pilots, must be investigated.
 
Even though the airship lasted only eight years, the junta last week tried to establish something which may haunt Thai politics for two decades. On 12 September, the junta’s draft National Strategic Plan was published on the website of the National Economic and Social Development Board. According to the 2017 Charter, this plan is a guideline that future civilian governments have to follow for the next 20 years. 
 
The released draft does not clearly explain what kind of policy civilian governments have to follow, but rather discusses the challenges and opportunities that Thailand will experience in the future. However, the list of individuals who will be members of the so-called “National Strategic Committee” (NSC) raises concerns that the plan will only strengthen military influence over Thai politics.
 
Among 28 members of the NSC, 11 come from the security branch and five of them head Thailand’s security forces including the supreme commander, the commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force and the commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police. The permanent secretary of the Defence Ministry also has a seat while other ministries do not. This is a clear sign that the NSC has national security as its main priority.
 
Even Gen Anupong, who currently holds no position in the security forces, gets a personal nomination as an NCPO representative. 
 
Even though there are some civilians in the NSC, they are either representatives of big corporations or people who worked closely with the junta. These include Wissanu Krea-ngam, currently a Deputy Prime Minister; Borwornsak Uwanno, a former junta-appointed charter drafter; Kan Trakulhoon, Chairman of the Board of Advance Info Service; and Chartsiri Sophonpanich, President and Director of the Bangkok Bank.    
 
If the security branch can successfully build a coalition with big companies through the National Strategic Plan, Thailand might face a solid authoritarian regime which will be more powerful and last longer than any weapon the military has ever bought.