Incompetence or Karma?

[This was sent to the Nation newspaper in Bangkok on February 18, 2011, and to the Phnom Penh Post two days later. Not published by either. It was published in Khmer translation in the February 24 issue of the Cambodian paper Koh Santepheap.]

Who, if anyone, is in charge of the Thai Air Force? Is it the Thai Defence Minister? Someone else in the government? A military commander? The Yellow Shirts?

The question arises because all of these people, and more, seem to be issuing orders to Thailand’s Air Force and/or explaining its actions. And mostly they disagree with each other.

Let’s start with the Yellow Shirts. Although the Yellow Shirts put Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva into office by occupying the Bangkok airport a few years ago, they are increasingly upset with his inability to disband UNESCO, overrun Preah Vihear or convince the rest of the world that Thailand is the only country that has any heritage worth mentioning.

On 3 February, there was a Yellow Shirt demonstration in Bangkok led by Major General Chamlong Srimuang. According to the Nation newspaper, Chamlong called on the Thai government “to withdraw Thailand from membership of the World Heritage Committee, disavow 2000’s memorandum of understanding on bilateral border demarcations” with Cambodia and to “send F-16 fighters flying over the controversial spots along the Thai-Cambodian border”. The report continued:

“The airborne powers of the Thai air force could be used in lieu of ground or naval forces against the Cambodians who only have some dilapidated MiG-21 fighters to counter the relatively modern American-made combat jets, said the general.”

The same Nation article quoted the Thai Defence Minister, General Prawit Wongsuwan, as saying that “Military ties between Thailand and Cambodia remained firm and friendly”. However, the Minister has some peculiar ideas about friendship. Or perhaps a Major General in the Yellow Shirts outranks a General in the government. Whatever the reason, five days later Prawit had adopted Chamlong’s idea regarding the Air Force.

Prawit told the Thai Cabinet “that Cambodia was unlikely to exacerbate the situation because it did not have a strong military. ‘Cambodia’s air force is not powerful, and I warned my counterpart [Cambodian Minister of National Defence] Tea Banh that we would fly jet fighters if they did not stop,’ Prawit was quoted as saying.” (Nation, 9 February)

Unfortunately, the Nation’s report did not make clear what Cambodia was supposed to “stop” in order to avoid being menaced by the Thai Air Force. Perhaps General Prawit meant that Cambodia would have to stop not having a powerful air force.

Two days later, on 10 February, two Thai fighter planes flew along, and possibly across, the border near the Preah Vihear Temple. Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban told the Thai News Agency that this had not happened, and anyway it was only normal flight training.

Mr Suthep was contradicted by Air Chief Marshal Prachin Chantong, who told the Bangkok Post that two Thai planes “flew very close to the Cambodian border by mistake”. Prachin reportedly said that the planes were participating in the Cobra Gold military exercises with the United States and Singapore. They were supposed to stay at least 10 kilometres from the border, but “by mistake” had flown within two or three kilometres.

It might be too cynical to discount the “mistake” explanation. Mistakes seem to be endemic in the Thai Air Force, perhaps because its personnel can’t be sure whose orders they are supposed to be following. A more serious mistake occurred on 14 February, when two Thai F-16s crashed; fortunately the pilots ejected safely. Initial reports indicated that the planes may have collided with each other. Perhaps Major General Chamlong told them “Turn right!” while Air Chief Marshal Prachin was telling them “Turn left!”

However, we should also mention the possibility that the crashes were not a mistake in the usual sense of the word. In both Thailand and Cambodia, the majority religion is Buddhism. It is a central Buddhist belief that a person’s good or bad behaviour today affects their future fortune. Some Buddhists might be inclined to see the loss of two military planes as karmic retribution for the Thai military’s shelling of both the Temple of Preah Vihear and Wat Keo Sekha Kiri Svarak.

Prime Minister Abhisit is working overtime to prevent international observers seeing what his troops have been and are doing. But can he hide them from the Buddha?

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