Thai military mindset stuck in the past

opinion July 12, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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Two major rescue operations demonstrate need for more sophisticated ‘weapons’ in emergency-response missions

The Thai military is in the global spotlight thanks to two major rescue operations. The military led the emergency response to a boat accident off Phuket that left almost 50 Chinese tourists dead last week, and the mission to save 12 young footballers and their coach trapped inside a flooded cave in Chiang Rai cave for two weeks. 

The last of the 12 footballers was rescued on Tuesday, to cheers of jubilation that echoed around the world.

Fears for the safety of the boys had grown after the death of former Thai Navy SEAL diver Samarn Kunan, who lost his life while taking part in the rescue operation.

The 12 boys and their coach were 

running out of fresh air as volunteers raced the clock to drain the flooded cave and provide them with an escape route before monsoon rains returned.

In a country facing crises on all fronts – from economic to political – the courageous and successful mission at Tham Luang was a much-needed boost to Thai spirits. Though led by Thai Navy SEALs, the operation was an international effort that would likely not have succeeded without the selfless expertise of volunteers from across the globe. 

Also desperate for more oxygen, politically speaking, was the ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order, which had been under tremendous 

pressure to return the mandate back to the people after four years of military rule. 

The high-profile success in Chiang Rai could give them desperately needed breathing space. It is unlikely, however, to turn them into national heroes, given the brazen indifference shown by many senior figures to widespread public criticism of their inept attempts to resolve deep-rooted national problems. 

The popularity boost may take the pressure off in the short term, though.

Down South, off the coast of Phuket, a tour boat carrying mostly Chinese holidaymakers sank during a violent storm on Thursday, leaving 46 people dead. A five-metre wave caused the boat to capsize, rendering the lifejackets useless.

Military helicopters were brought in to help with the search for the missing, and Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha took time out to meet with some of the survivors.

The military was at the forefront in both these national traumas, spearheading the rescue efforts as well as providing wider logistical support. 

With so many accidents and emergencies occurring in and around the country’s territorial waters, it may be time for the Thai military to give higher priority to the battle against “non-traditional” threats rather than the negligible risk from foreign armies.

The top brass may say they do pay attention to these threats, but their arms-procurement policy and enthusiasm for military hardware don’t reflect that.

Even in the insurgency-hit far South, Thai security officials must patrol in lightly armoured pickup trucks that are no match for the insurgents’ roadside bombs. And this in an area where separatist insurgency and conflict since January 2004 has claimed nearly 7,000 lives.

In real terms, such a recalibration of military aims would mean the buying fewer main battle tanks, armoured personnel vehicles, and gunships and instead spending more on utility helicopters, better diving equipment, rapid rescue boats and other hi-tech equipment designed for the most pressing tasks.

It is not clear, however, whether Thailand’s generals have any political will to change their thinking. Their handling of the far South insurgency suggests rather that they will continue with business as usual.

But if the Chiang Rai cave rescue and the boat tragedy in Phuket tell us 

anything, it is that the top brass need to go back to the drawing board and rethink their outdated doctrines.