Armed to the teeth, with no battle to fight

When everyone else is dead, the arms dealers will sip champagne and cuddle Playboy bunnies. Why? "Because everyone else will be busy killing each other," said Yuri Orlov, the arms dealer in Lord of War as portrayed by Nicolas Cage. When his client orders him a shipment of machine guns used in Rambo, Mr Orlov, an award-winning salesperson, asks, "Rambo part 1, 2 or 3?"

The Yuri Orlovs of the world are always busy making money because governments are always busy fighting real and (mostly) imaginary wars. Sometimes it's just a war for the planet of the apes, since we're the simian population stuck in the jungle of horror, in paranoia or ignorance, deprived of rights and watching the ground burn as the military jets zoom above our hairy heads.

We're reminded of war because this week the Thai air force has agreed to purchase another eight trainer jets worth 8.8 billion baht from South Korea. Concurrently, for some reason, I thought about Yuri Orlov because he's a character based on real-life Viktor Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death" Russian arms smuggler who sold to the Taliban, African warlords as well as the United Nations, and who was arrested in a five-star hotel in Bangkok in 2008.

It must be our feng shui: Weapons, arms tycoons, subs, tanks and fighter jets find their way here as our defence budget keeps swelling like a pregnant woman whose due date is indefinite (if ever). So many guns and tanks for the land of peace and a million smiles.

Naturally Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a soldier all of his life, defends the latest shopping decision. "Please understand the government does not throw state money into just buying military hardware and weapons as some people claim," he said. "The government has approved agricultural sector budgets of 20-30 billion baht a week on average. Budgets for each sector are separate." News of the fighter jets came in the same week as the growing resentment of rubber farmers in pain from plunging prices. The PM's response seemed to indirectly refer to that.

A sense of impending conflict is what keeps the world revolving. The idea is to keep drilling into our heads that precaution and stockpiling are necessary because everyone is doing the same "just in case" -- every country does that, some more than others, and the military government naturally find better excuses to splurge than civilian ones. The dynamics is what enriches the Orlovs of the world: My neighbours have jets and subs, so I must have some, then the neighbours see our jets and subs, and the cycle goes on. It would be good if we could make the hardware. But no, like cars or designer handbags, we're the consumers and our role is to spend, and spend.

The 8.8-billion jet purchase is a tail's end of a long list of grocery shopping since 2015, following the 28 VT-4 battle tanks (4.9 billion baht), 34 VN-1 armoured vehicles (2.3 billion), the S26T submarine (13.5 billion), the four Black Hawks that cost three billion, and many others. It's government-to-government deals, but it's the taxpayers who pay.

We have to buy some to put a shine on our armour, I get that, since we're not living in John Lennon's Imagine. And yet context is required. In the past 11 years, the defence budget has grown steadily: It was 85 billion in 2006 (the year of the 19 Sept coup), rising to 115 billion in 2007, 170 billion in 2008, 192.9 billion in 2015, and 207.7 billion in 2016 -- last year the Health Ministry got 126 billion, the Agriculture Ministry got 52.6 billion, the Transport Ministry got 63 billion, for instance). For the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the defence budget again expands to 222.4 billion, or 7.7% of the country's budget, while the Education Ministry, still getting the biggest chunk at 510 billion, is actually down three billion from last year, and down seven billion from 2015. Less on schools, more on jets, basically.

Take note that the defence budget has grown not just during military rule. Every civilian administration of the past 11 years bumped up the army figures too, probably to pacify the generals, a strategy which, as Yingluck Shinawatra learned the hard way, didn't actually work.

Regardless of your stance on the coup and the politics, is this simply too much? A country where the military receives a bigger cut than health, transport, culture, labour, science, agriculture and social development isn't one on the path of sustainable progress. Even if we can't call for an election (blasphemy!) at least everyone can agree that too much spending on defence in times like this isn't a priority. Unless we're fighting a war. But what war? The war for the planet of the apes where we're reduced to monkeys blinking away tears and dust of despair.

Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

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