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‘Secret’ security spending under fire as Thai budget prioritises defence over health

The opposition is targeting a “secret budget” worth more than Bt1 billion while vetting the Bt3.1-trillion budget for the 2022 fiscal year.

The budget bill passed its first parliamentary reading in early June and is now being vetted by the ad-hoc committee until August, before being sent back to Parliament for votes in the second and third readings.

The bill was criticized by both opposition and some government MPs for allocating large unexplained funds for national security and military purchases at a time when COVID-19 is crippling the economy.

Worth more than Bt1 billion, the veiled security spending is being examined by the opposition Pheu Thai Party amid concerns that projected total government revenue of just Bt2.4 trillion will result in a whopping budget deficit of Bt700billion, said party deputy leader Yuttapong Charasathien.

He cited the lack of details available for the budget allocated to several state agencies. The Thai Army set Bt290 million for its secret operations, with Bt62 million going to the Navy, Bt30 million to the Air Force, Bt32 million to the Office of the Permanent Secretary for Defence, and Bt55million to the Thai Armed Forces Headquarters, said Yuttapong who is also a member of the budget vetting committee.

Also unexplained is the Bt558 million of spending for the Prime Minister’s Office, which supervises the National Intelligence Agency and National Security Council, who are set to receive cloaked budgets worth Bt232 and Bt50 million respectively.

Murky military budget

“What is the purpose of the secret spending? Is it for information operations [IO] and to monitor opposition activities?” Yuttapong asked.

He also pointed out that another Bt8 million in secret spending was requested by the Foreign Ministry, Bt5 million by the Labour Ministry, and Bt20 million by the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre.

No details of how this public money will be spent have been made available for the opposition to scrutinize, he lamented. If agencies cannot explain their need for such funding, it should be cut, he added.

The government has been accused of running IO campaigns against the pro-democracy movement but has denied the allegations. However, in their efforts to fight misinformation, Facebook and Twitter have blocked hundreds of accounts linked to Thai authorities.

The government’s secret spending plans are part of a national security budget worth Bt387.9 billion, or 12.5 percent of the total budget. Critics say it should instead have prioritized public health spending, to combat the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Spending for public health in 2022 is set at Bt306.7 billion.

The current coalition government has joined its military-backed predecessors in being criticized for spending too much on the military at the expense of social welfare, including child welfare.

Pheu Thai now wants to cut the Army’s Bt4.5-billion budget to purchase armored vehicles and Bt4.2 billion to buy combat helicopters.

Meanwhile, the Navy has resubmitted its plan to purchase two submarines worth Bt 22.5 billion after its 2021 fiscal spending was cut. The Navy also plans to buy a tank-landing ship for Bt6.2billion while the Air Force plans to buy combat jets worth Bt4.5 billion and to spend Bt1.5 billion on the first phase of its space domain project.

These spending items must be postponed, Yuttapong says.

What power does vetting panel have?

The budget vetting committee has the power to cut some budget items but it cannot directly increase the budget for other state agencies or independent organizations. The Cabinet has the authority to propose to increase or relocate budgets that have been cut for some state agencies and independent organizations. The budget vetting committee will then decide whether they agree with the relocation or increases before sending the bill back to Parliament for a vote.

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS)

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