A file photo of a blimp flying over a burning flame. Photo: AFP/Fabric Coffrini

Thailand’s military government faces rising demands for accountability and an investigation into the army’s 2009 purchase of a US$10 million US-built surveillance blimp to hunt jungle-based Muslim rebels. The vessel has subsequently leaked, crashed and rarely flew, and will now be decommissioned and cannibalized for its infrared thermal cameras.

The military seized power in a bloodless May 2014 coup and has since successfully squelched most political opposition. Its new constitution, passed last August in a national referendum, has been billed as an “anti-corruption” charter, one that will be guarded by a military-appointed Senate after new elections are held.

But the so-called “Sky Dragon” blimp fiasco has raised new questions about the junta’s corruption-busting credentials. The emerging scandal has spotlighted two of the junta’s top senior military officers and other high-ranking military officials involved in the contract, maintenance budget and related issues.

“Even though the airship was purchased when I was the army chief, the investigation needs to look at those who were involved, including receiving the vessel, making the contract and using it,” current interior minister and former army commander General Anupong Paojinda said on September 15 when asked by reporters about the 2009 contract.

Anupong’s colleague, current defense minister and junta No. 2 General Prawit Wongsuwon, served as defense minister at the time of the contract signing. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, sidelined since the coup, was prime minister when the deal was done and during the official handover ceremony in 2010.

Anupong and others have denied direct involvement in the deal’s contract and financing. No one so far has been found guilty of any wrongdoing concerning the military blimp procurement.

Then army chief Anupong Paojinda with Muslim religious leaders during a visit to insurgency-prone southern Thailand on February 5, 2009. Photo: AFP via Bangkok Post/Maluding Deeto 

The army bought the blimp in 2009 for US$10 million from Aria International, a contractor based in Arlington, Virginia, and reportedly spent and additional US$1 million on helium and other maintenance to refill and repair the leaky Sky Dragon. The blimp is manufactured by Aeros in Montebello, California.

After eight years of rare flights, the blimp was recently decommissioned. The air vessel’s valuable and sophisticated surveillance cameras are to be salvaged for future military use. The five digital V-14MSII cameras were manufactured by Axsys Technologies based in Grass Valley, California, which was acquired by General Dynamics in 2009.

Each V-14 camera’s spying ability is so powerful that a “man in an apartment in Los Angeles would be extremely surprised to learn that we can read his computer screen from a moving helicopter flying past his window at around one kilometer from his building,” the V-14’s documentation said.

Those infrared thermal cameras were mounted on the blimp, which has an enclosed aluminum alloy gondola underneath. The Sky Dragon’s pilot was supposed to relay the cameras’ pictures to nearby helicopters, vehicles and buildings while coordinating assaults against Muslim Malay-Thai guerrillas fighting in the country’s three southernmost Muslim majority provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

Thailand’s military has failed to win the grinding, low-intensity guerilla war along the Thai-Malaysian border which has killed more than 7,000 people on all sides since January 2004. In 2009, Aria International hailed the deal with Thailand and other customers in a media statement headlined: “Blimps Find Favor as Poor Man’s Satellite.”

“There are actual ‘bad guys’ in the south of Thailand, and the army is actually working to catch them,” Aria International’s president and chief executive Mike “Bing” Crosby told this reporter in a 2010 interview.

Asked about the blimp’s pricing, Crosby replied: “Airship equals US$2.8 million. Cameras and downlink equipment equals US$6 million.” Additional costs included “one armored mobile command vehicle,” plus installation, integration and other investments, he said at the time.

The contract also included training, maintenance, construction of an airship hangar, and building of a 12-room hotel for Aria staff at the Thai army’s base near Pattani. After ruptures and leaks kept the blimp grounded, the army reportedly asked the supplier in July 2010 to replace it with a new one. For publicly unknown reasons, the airship was repaired instead.

In August 2010, then army chief Anupong began to shrug off allegations of possible corruption by officials involved in the contract. In 2012, the fat, oval-shaped blimp crashed while descending toward its hangar during then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s showcase visit to the south.

Yingluck, convicted yesterday on criminal negligence charges related to a rice price scheme, was ousted in the 2014 coup.

Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan at the Defence Ministry in Bangkok, Thailand, February 18, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

The junta’s opponents have seized on the case to counter military charges that elected politicians have a monopoly on the country’s entrenched corruption.

“The time when the army feels it can buy whatever it pleases should come to an end,” said anti-coup ‘Red Shirt’ pressure group leader Tida Thavornseth.

The military’s often opaque procurement practices have most recently come into question over plans to buy three submarines from China reportedly for around US$1 billion. Analysts have questioned the strategic rationale behind the procurement.

The Office of the Attorney-General (OAG) may study the blimp case, officials said. “The OAG inspectors should follow up on the case and gather information and evidence about it,” said Auditor-General Pisit
Leelavachiropas.

If the OAG finds any alleged problems with the contract, the case could be forwarded to the powerful National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), which recommends punishments for violators in court cases.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha talks to the media at a polling station during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok, Thailand, August 7, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

A vocal military critic, Srisuwan Janya, petitioned the OAG on September 18 demanding an investigation and named several top officials and politicians allegedly linked to the blimp’s contract approval, financing and other decisions.

“I am asking the OAG to get to the truth of the matter,” Srisuwan said.

The local press has seized on the case. One editorial cartoon published on September 19 – the 11-year anniversary of the military coup that overthrew then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, partially on corruption charges – showed an apparent junta official riding a horse while carrying a banner illustrated with the words “Anti-Corruption.”

In the portrait, the military official looks over his shoulder and frowns when he sees a huge “army airship” blimp hurtling down to crash upon him. Sensing a political opportunity, the criminally convicted, self-exiled Thaksin tweeted the same day: “I hope the memory of what happened 11 years ago has not faded from the hearts of Thai people.”