Thai Soldier’s Deadly Rampage Puts Army on Defense

YANGON, MYANMAR - Thailand's military is facing a barrage of public scorn over the alleged security lapses and corruption being blamed for a disgruntled soldier's deadly rampage earlier this month, shredding its slogan as the country's keeper of peace and order.

Analysts say the drubbing will bolster the campaign of those already critical of the military for its outsized political powers but doubt that the reforms army chief Apirat Kongsompong has promised in the wake of the massacre will amount to much.

Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth Thomma's shooting spree started February 8 near an army base in northern Thailand's Nakhon Ratchasima province and ended in a shopping mall the following morning, leaving 30 people dead including the shooter and 58 wounded. It was Thailand's deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in memory.

Just hours before, Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth had railed online about being swindled by a senior officer and the officer's mother-in-law in a real estate deal. After shooting the pair, he allegedly snatched three assault rifles and two machine guns from the base's armory and stole an army truck, which he drove to a Buddhist temple and then on to the mall. After an hours-long search and standoff, police finally shot and killed the soldier, who had barricaded himself in the basement with hostages.

Defense Ministry spokesman Khongcheap Tantravanich said the shooting may dent the trust some Thais have in the military but added that most would not hold the institution as a whole to blame.

I think they can separate about this event because it was an individual, one soldier, he told VOA.

Thailand's military has long prided itself as a paragon of duty and discipline and used that claim to justify a history of toppling elected governments. After its last putsch in 2014, it duly named the military junta that would go on to run the country for the next five years the National Council for Peace and Order.

Since last weekend's massacre, however, that claim has taken a public beating, with mounting criticism of the military's own competence and opaque business interests.

Because the army has sought to really build its reputation as the preserver of order for the kingdom, especially since 2014, this incident almost completely destroys that image, said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand's Naresuan University who studies the country's civil-military relations.

In fact the military has now lost support from traditional backers, he added.

Chambers said the groundswell of disaffection also puts wind in the sails of the opposition Future Forward party, which has been leading the charge to curb the army's ballooning budget and political sway since a tainted general election last year made the military man who led the 2014 coup, Prayut Chan-ocha, prime minister.

The incident especially hurts Prayut since he has been the face of the regime since the 2014 coup, he said.

Even so, he picked Prayut to survive a no-confidence vote in Parliament next week, the ex-general and his lieutenants having rigged the system in the military's favor during the junta by, among other things, rewriting the constitution and appointing a new Senate.

Wanwichit Boonprong, an expert on military affairs at Thailand's Rangsit University, said Prayut's government and the military were too entwined to let the other take a fall.

This government strongly supports the army, and also they strongly support each other; they cannot separate with each other, he said.

He also questioned their commitment to follow through on the spate of reforms Gen. Apirat, the army chief, promised in the days that followed the mass shooting. They include firings, a hotline for soldiers abused by their superiors and transferring management of the military's business ventures and state land holdings to the Ministry of Finance.

The army chief has already walked back one pledge to push retired officers out of their public housing.

Public pressure to follow through or go further will be tempered by the popular support the military still enjoys among many Thais, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University.

He said some Thais neither staunchly for nor against the military before the massacre may start to lean toward its critics but believes die-hard supporters will stay loyal.

Some of the people who have been supporting the military might [have] started to criticize, he said. But it doesn't mean that they stop supporting the military, because there are many other factors [why] they actually support the military to remain in place.

He expects any reforms that do follow from the fallout over the mass shooting to be mostly cosmetic, avoiding what many say ails the country most a military that refuses to subordinate itself to a truly civilian government.

The problem is that the Thai military doesn't perceive itself as a kind of unit under the government or the Thai administration. They tend to see themself as a kind of separate unit, Titipol said.

[In] the end, I don't think they would change anything that would actually make it better for the country.

Source: Voice of America