'Study Trips' Make Blazing Comeback

The exposure of the trip to Japan, which the navy thought was going to remain a secret, was made by 'Watchdog.ACT', affiliated to the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT), sponsored by Big Business. (From FB)

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'I have disallowed overseas study trips as of today. I don't want [state officials] to go on these trips except to follow up on their work or to attend international meetings. If they need to know about something, organise a seminar and invite experts to come here. It will be cheaper ... If you want to go on study trips, do so after you have an elected government."

The "I" here is Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. He made the statement, backed up by an official letter from the PM's Office, in March 2015.

The PM's order must have expired after two years. Another explanation would be that there are exceptions to it or it was enforced in the first place.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.

That the PM's 2015 order has been dropped or it was nothing but hot air would explain the latest controversy raging on the internet: a "study trip" to Japan by navy officers attending a strategic course.

The Watch Dog Facebook page associated with the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT) last Friday posted a series of photos showing a group of people holding a banner saying "a study trip to Japan by the Royal Thai Navy's strategic course", enjoying a buffet and jumping into the air at a ski resort.

The page alleged that the Naval Education Department organised a "study trip" for officers attending its strategic course in February which included few briefings but a lot of shopping opportunities, a tour of must-see tourist destinations, a visit to a beer factory and a ski resort.

The page also claimed that officers who went on the apparently luxurious trip received a daily stipend of 2,100 baht each, plus a chance to bring people along at a price of about 60,000 baht each.

The anti-corruption page said training courses organised by state agencies often wrap up with an overseas study trip.

"These agencies would cite a need to study foreign customs, arts, culture, society or environment as the reasons why they must go on these trips. Ordinary people, however, have come to the conclusion for a long time that these study trips are tours. They have turned this practice into a tradition, a normal and right thing to do," the page said.

The post sparked a firestorm of criticism, mainly from those who said it's usually low-ranking officers who had to endure the hard and dangerous work while higher-ranking officers can rest and relax on overseas tours.

Many also said the officers should not have wasted taxpayers' money on a recreational trip that is not directly related to their work.

The controversy intensified after a Facebook user who listed himself as a naval officer fired back saying people who are sleeping well in their homes should not condemn officers who give them protection.

The user said the officers have to train hard and risk their lives. They deserve a break. The budget is also theirs and rightfully earned. It's normal for the officers to unwind and travel, he said.

"Have people posting comments ever served in the army? Don't just bark and pour out satire," the man wrote in a post which has reportedly been deleted.

The self-righteous and demeaning post certainly drew heavier fire for the navy. Eventually, the navy spokesman Admiral Jumpol Lumpikanon came out to clarify that trips to study security affairs, arts and culture of foreign countries is part of the navy's curriculum.

Adm Jumpol did not reveal details of the programme for the controversial Japan trip but insisted that the course administrator prepared the itinerary, including choices for restaurants and hotels to achieve maximum benefits under the allocated budget.

The spokesman apparently missed the point. People understood that the navy believes the overseas trips are necessary, hence those study sojourns. What they are asking is how these travels could make for better naval officers. They want to know what exactly is on the programme, whether they are sampling sushi, soaking themselves in an on-sen or sipping beer at a ski resort while admiring Mount Fuji as alleged by the watchdog Facebook page.

The public does not want reassurance from the navy that it is good enough to decide how to spend the public's money. They want to judge it by themselves.

More importantly, the spokesman did not say anything about the prime minister's order forbidding officials from going on overseas study trips unless they are completely necessary.

Does this mean no agency takes the PM's order seriously or that it is applied to everyone except the armed forces?

Whichever way it turns out, PM Prayut, his apparently strict order and his overall authority end up bruised and battered.

Source : http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1289215/study-trips-make-blazing-comeback

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