Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Thai army needs to march to a new tune

I always get feelings of fear when I hear the army's famous propaganda song, Nak Paendin, which in Thai means "burden of the country". As a child born during the 1970s, this song reminds me of military putsches.

Every time the army launched a coup d’etat, televisions would be blacked out, and propaganda songs would be played over and over on TV screens and radios, interchanged with press conferences where stoney-faced, top-brass officials read aloud executive decrees. To this day, people of my generation can still sing these propaganda songs because the punchy lyrics are forever etched in our brains.

Written by Col Boonsong Haksuek in 1975 as a propaganda song against communism, it was used by the radical right during the massacre at Thammasat University.

So I was shocked when last week, some decades later, the army played Nak Paendin again — just over a week before the general election tomorrow. The Royal Thai Army uploaded a 2.59-minute video clip of the army’s band playing this song.

The response from the public was understandably negative. Shortly after being released, the army removed the clip following a flood of criticism. One day later, the army released a new clip — a cartoon animation with a rap song telling people “why the military is needed” and begging people to understand Thai soldiers. I must admit the rap song was really bland and monotonous. Nothing compares to Nak Paendin’s power to divide and instigate hate against so-called “enemies of the state”.

In an unprecedented move, the army this week also projected onto a giant screen a message encouraging soldiers to vote for the party that “cares about their welfare”. The message was apparently sent to army agencies across the country.

On Thursday, army commander Gen Narongpan Jittkaewtae, who is set to retire five months from now, gave a media interview, saying: “In my remaining months, the probability of a coup is zero or even negative.” I wonder how many people believe him.

Evidently, the Thai military feels hurt by how some people, as well as popular parties like the Move Forward Party (MFP), have tried to downplay its worth and called for the cutting back of its size and budget. Old habits die hard. The military responded with the question: “Why is the military needed?” and playing zealous nationalistic songs like Nak Paendin.

Make no mistake. The military is needed, despite no sign of an imminent war. For military strategists, the armed forces and weapons are needed, at least to preserve the status quo.

Of course, the Royal Thai Navy needs quality ships and even its submarines upgraded. It was reactionary talk when a member of the MFP said the navy could use fishing vessels to fight. The Royal Thai Air Force also needs new and better fighter jets — despite this coming at a high cost to taxpayers. I’ll never forget one of my first assignments interviewing a family whose two sons — both air force jet pilots — had died because they had been flying old fighter jets.

But this does not mean the military gets carte blanche for its weapons and shopping sprees. Several military procurements have been a waste of resources, such as the unused 350-million-baht airship or the overpriced GT-200 bogus bomb detectors.

In the latter case, it’s worth mentioning that former supreme commander Gen Anupong Paojinda was not implicated in the National Anti-Corruption Commission’s (NACC) corruption probe even when the military was the biggest spender of all taxpayers’ money for the deals — estimated at 682 million baht for the 757 GT-200 devices. Only small fry like the former Yala provincial governor Teera Mintrasak was found guilty of malfeasance in office and sentenced to eight years in prison by the Criminal Court for corruption and misconduct.

Of course, the military is needed — but absolutely not for political reasons. Even when political crises warrant military intervention, coups have proven to be a non-sustainable solution that only make the country go around in big circles … backwards. Instead of telling the public “why the military is needed”, the army could ask new questions, like: “How can the army serve? What does a modern army look like? What is national security in modern times?” The right questions will lead to better outcomes.

And if the army does not want politicians to meddle, then it should start its own reforms by eliminating corruption and making arms procurement transparent and cost-efficient. The military could make itself a fair and equal place to work that is gender-neutral and free from violence. It could keep modernising by taking care of its soldiers and aligning more with an open society.

But its first step might be to stop playing that Nak Paendin song!

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