BANGKOK: French anti-tank missiles, Swedish jets and American assault rifles—Western governments have criticized Thailand’s junta for toppling democracy but at a Bangkok arms fair it was business as usual.
The kingdom’s well-oiled military has been handsomely rewarded in the last decade during which it has twice seized power, ousting elected governments in 2006 and 2014 coups.
In that time the defense budget has nearly tripled from 78.1 billion baht ($2.1 billion) in 2005 to 207 billion baht assigned for next year.
The largesse is part of a wider trend across Southeast Asia, where defense spending has rapidly increased — a phenomenon arms manufacturers are embracing as more industrialized but austerity-blighted nations try to balance the books.
At the “Defense & Security 2015” fair in northern Bangkok this week, Emirati company NIMR promoted their latest military vehicles including an armored 4×4 designed for “dispersing potentially violent crowd gatherings.”
“We’re launching in this region for the first time,” a staff member told AFP. “It’s definitely a growth market.”
Elsewhere officers from a host of regional militaries chatted as they cocked display rifles and looked down their gun sights. Others posed for pictures with models dressed in tight camouflage playsuits.
Pistols, stun grenades, drones, tanks and the Brahmos—India’s answer to the cruise missile—are on display until Thursday, as well as models of jets such as the Gripen by Sweden’s Saab.
Russian arms manufacturer Bazalt was even advertising a cluster bomb—the PBK-500U SPBE-K. They declined an AFP request to be interviewed.
In total more than 400 companies from 50 countries are showing their wares — including Britain’s BAE Systems, France’s Thales, Italy’s Finmeccanica and Lockheed Martin, from the United States.
Both the US and the European Union have chided the junta for again seizing power.
Adam Thomas, a spokesman for the British government’s UK Trade & Investment department, which also had a delegation at the fair, said all military sales would be “assessed on a case-by-case basis.”
Money to be made
For weapons manufacturers, Southeast Asia is a tantalizing prospect.
“Unlike many other regions where defense budgets are falling, they’re only growing in Asia,” Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian militaries told AFP.
He estimates defense spending in the region increased 37 percent between 2010 and 2014 — $38.2 billion alone last year.
Thailand’s military spend — around 1.5 percent of GDP — is on a par with regional norms.
But it “has outpaced just about any other government outlay, except for education,” Abuza told AFP.
The kingdom has seen 19 failed or successful coups since it abandoned an absolute monarchy in 1932 and a series of violent military crackdowns — in April and May 2010 at least 90 people were killed during anti-government protests.
After last May’s coup the US canceled some military aid, but still pressed ahead with joint exercises.
Thailand’s generous approach to its armed forces has not been without controversy, especially given the stuttering post-coup economy.
Critics say the military — which boasts one of the highest proportions of generals in the world — has a penchant for big-ticket purchases it doesn’t need, including an aircraft carrier that currently has no aircraft.
Earlier this year the navy floated plans to buy three submarines from China for $1 billion, but shelved them amid public outcry.
Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said arms sales in Thailand were unlikely to be encumbered by junta rule.
“The global arms industry has evidently never seen a military coup that they didn’t like, and judging from the attendance at this arms fair, the NCPO military junta is pretty popular with this crowd,” he told AFP.
A Thai junta spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
The kingdom has also been developing its own defense products, unveiling its first armored carrier — the Black Widow Spider — this week.
At the stand for Chaiseri, a Thai armored vehicle manufacturer, three large personnel carriers were on display.
“Some customers fly over here from Eastern Europe, from (the) Middle East or even North Africa,” explained general manager Kan Koolhiran, adding their products were often cheaper than western rivals thanks to lower labor costs.