State coffers first, new helicopter fleet later: PM-designate Yingluck

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BANGKOK, July 27 – Thailand’s prime minister-to-be Yingluck Shinawatra said Wednesday that the Pheu Thai led-coalition government is ready to support the army plan to buy a new fleet of 30 helicopters following the tragedy of three crashed army helicopters this month, but implementation and timing of the decision depends on the country’s financial status and available budget.

The incoming premier made her remarks as army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha told media that he plans to ask the new government to approve buying 30 new helicopters to replace the old fleet, which has been in use for many years, causing frequent accidents and casualties.

Ms Yingluck said she still must study the army’s purchase request thoroughly and that many factors will be taken into account such the availability of funds and whether the new choppers are actually needed.

She said the Pheu Thai-led government is ready to support the army’s plan if it is vital for national security, but she must prioritise a number of issues once she takes office.

Asked whether the new choppers are needed urgently following three crashes in nine days in Kaeng Krajan National Park, the winning candidate on the Pheu Thai party-list said the army must inform the new government of its purchase plan.

Ms Yingluck said she expects to meet with the army chief after the new government is formed and that all concerned ministers will take part in considering buying the new helicopters.

Sixteen soldiers and one television cameraman were killed in three helicopter crashes last week while they were on missions first to transport stranded officials trapped in Kaeng Krajan National Park, and then to retrieve the remains of those killed in the first helicopter crash.

Bad weather and poor visibility were believed to have caused the first two accidents, while engine malfunction was blamed for the third crash.

Meanwhile, army chief Gen Prayuth asserted Wednesday that the army was not trying to take advantage from last week’s tragedy to seek new helicopters.

He explained that the army has a continuing procurement plan, currently in the third phase of the 2013-2016 plan.

“All the army’s aircraft, both contributed and purchased, meets international standards. It is not possible that the army violated aviation regulations by allowing malfunctioning helicopters to fly as the lives of our people are at risk,”  Gen Prayuth asserted.