The sinking of the HTMS Sukhothai was a shocking tragedy that has left Thai society greatly dismayed. Having faithfully served the nation for almost 36 years, withstanding rough seas and journeying as far afield as Australia, the well-maintained corvette sunk in tumultuous waters on Sunday, not far from the coast of Bang Saphan district in Prachuap Khiri Khan province.
At this moment, our deepest condolences go out to the families of our navy sailors who lost their lives in this disturbing accident. Their services to the country must be honoured and their families deservedly well-atoned. The whole country is praying the missing sailors will be safely rescued. As such, it is no surprise to see the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) extending all its efforts to continue the rescue mission.
That being said, the navy must act quickly to salvage the sunken corvette. The warship, according to the RTN, is loaded with fuel that can leak and pollute the sea and its marine life, greatly affecting local ecological systems.
The accident also raises questions about the reliability of the RTN's maintenance service and related budget. Yesterday, political activist Taikorn Pholsuwan sent a letter asking the House's committee on the military budget to look into the navy's funding in this area. He claims the former navy chief has issued public comments to the effect that navy ships and other equipment have not been properly maintained. Needless to say, the navy chief must provide reliable information and launch a probe to ensure the safety of all navy personnel.
This is especially important because the RTN keeps insisting the HTMS Sukhothai has received regular maintenance, with the last major overhaul having been done two years ago. The navy even plans to extend the vessel's years of operation for another 5-10 years. The corvette is equipped with key systems to prevent it flooding in the event of rough weather or an attack, such as being structurally compartmentalised, which begs the question: How did it succumb to rough seas?
The latest press conference by Adm Choengchai Chomchoengpaet, the navy chief, did little to clear the air in this respect or inspire trust.
To be fair, the navy chief deserves praise for publicly pledging to launch a probe that "will leave no stoned unturned" and "bring the culprits to face the consequences". The problem is the public may not be able to access the probe's findings as the navy chief admitted later that "the navy will keep the public informed as far as possible in light of the regulations on disclosing classified information". Anyone familiar with the armed forces knows what this means.
The navy chief also caused many people's jaws to drop when he talked about the warship's safety compliance. He admitted that 30 additional staff who later boarded the vessel had not been equipped with life jackets. There were only enough available for the original 75 crew.
Surprisingly, he downplayed the issue. "Life jackets don't guarantee complete safety. We also have safety guidelines on rescue operations as well as plenty of dinghies and lifebuoys for (our personnel) to hold on to," Adm Choengchai said, before providing the media with statistics showing that, among the 30 people who were missing as of Monday, 18 wore life jackets.
Perhaps it is true that amid such choppy seas, life-saving gear might not work. But the safety rules on the HTMS Sukhothai were unequivocally compromised.
The warship sank, and so has people's trust in the RTN. The only difference is the latter may not be salvageable.