BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand has postponed the purchase of two submarines from China, officials said on Monday, following more than a week of public outcry about a multi-million dollar procurement during the country’s biggest economic slump in decades.
Thailand in 2015 approved a plan to buy three Yuan Class S26T submarines from China, one of which has already been purchased for 13.5 billion baht (326.01 million pounds).
A parliamentary committee earlier this month approved the order of the other two subs for 22.5 billion baht ($723.5 million), to be paid in seven annual installments starting from next year.
The move has stirred public anger, with the hashtag “What are the submarines for?” trending on Thai-language Twitter.
The political opposition has questioned the government spending priorities with the economy headed for its biggest contraction since the 1990s, due to the global impact of the pandemic.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said the navy has been told to delay the submarine purchase by a year, so that the allocated budget can be redirected to alleviating economic hardship.
“We have to talk to China, the navy has to talk about their contract to see if we can delay the payment to next year,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters.
He said the submarine deal will still go ahead because the submarine is vital to Thailand’s long-term defense interests.
“We can’t stop, this is part of the force development plan,” Prayuth said.
His government has faced protests almost daily for more than a month by student groups demanding an end to military influence in domestic politics, which they say has expanded since the 2014 coup that Prayuth led.
The demonstrators have attacked arms deals like the submarine procurement as a sign that his government favors the military over the public interest.
Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Martin Petty
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