BANGKOK, Thailand -- More than 5,000 U.S. troops begin training
Thailand's military on February 22, coinciding with demands for the
army's chief to resign and alleged financial corruption within the
military be investigated after an army officer massacred 29 people in
a shopping mall.

Dramatically weeping during a televised news conference, Army Chief
Gen. Apirat Kongsompong said on February 11, "Don't blame the army"
for Sgt. Jakrapanth Tomma's 17-hour rampage in Korat, a northeast city
also known as Nakorn Ratchasima.

"Blame me, General Apirat."

Sgt. Jakrapanth's bloody spree ended on February 9 when security
forces shot him dead in the mall after he killed 29 people.

"Throughout the whole incident, there were only criticisms of the
army. I want you to know that the army is a national security
organization, a sacred organization," Gen. Apirat said.

Gen. Apirat's use of the Thai word "saksit," which means "sacred,"
angered critics.

"He used the Thai word 'saksit', the supernatural powers that demand
reverence and total submission," wrote Sanitsuda Ekachai, one of
Thailand's most respected columnists.

"Disrespect or violations of such sanctity entail severe punishment,
which can include deaths. Is this self-perception -- or may I say
self-delusion -- behind the military's persistent intervention in
politics and no-holds violence against dissenters whom they regard as
'worse than animals'?" she wrote in the Bangkok Post on February 15.

"Even military dogs are grateful to the army," Gen. Apirat said,
sparking further outrage.

Gen. Apirat, son of a 1991 military coup leader, was perceived by some
as a future prime minister. But his problems appear to be mounting.

The military's crisis coincides with Pentagon's massive February
25-March 6 training exercise known as 2020 Thai-U.S. Cobra Gold.

"The largest regional annual multinational military exercise in the
Indo-Pacific, it is one of many annual exercises that serve as visible
symbols of the U.S.-Thai defense alliance," the American Embassy in
Bangkok said.

Cobra Gold will "address the full spectrum of security challenges in
the Indo-Pacific."

The main training involves 5,500 U.S. troops plus security forces from
Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia.

A Multinational Planning Augmentation Team (MPAT) includes Australia,
Bangladesh, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Mongolia, Nepal, New
Zealand, the Philippines and Fiji, plus this year's new participants
India and China.

A Combined Observer Liaison Team (COLT) is comprised of Laos, Vietnam,
Brunei, Myanmar, Pakistan, Cambodia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and

At least 64 fighter jets including six F-35 aircraft, and two naval
ships, the USS America and USS Green Bay, will reportedly participate,
and "full-scale" cyber warfare training will be offered.

Last year, Thailand's military spent more than $480 million purchasing
U.S. weaponry including eight attack reconnaissance helicopters, 50
Hellfire missiles, 60 Stryker infantry carrier vehicles, 200 Advance
Precision Kill Weapon System rockets, plus .50 caliber machine guns,
grenade launchers and other arms and ammunition.

Gen. Apirat meanwhile promised to investigate the military's financial
conflict-of-interest scandals, secretive business deals, and other
alleged corruption before his scheduled retirement in September.

Military officers profiting from shady deals were expected to hinder him.

The first salvo came when the army and the Finance Ministry's Treasury
Department signed a Memorandum of Understanding on February 17 to
transfer the army's commercial businesses and state-owned real estate
to the Finance Ministry.

The deal would allow most of the profits to flow into Thailand's treasury.

It includes more than 100 sites involving income from venues on
property which the Treasury Department had been renting to the army.

Gasoline stations, shops, street markets, hotels, boxing stadiums such
as the Lumpini Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, 30 golf courses, and horse
racing tracks in Korat and elsewhere would be renegotiated under the

Some new arrangements would grant the army possibly 7% of the profits.

The army's slew of holdings are to be divided into two main groups:
venues which were already open to public customers, and sites used
only by the armed forces and their families.

"I still don't know how much the commercial entities in the army are
worth," said Finance Permanent Secretary Prasong Poontanate who signed
the agreement with Army Chief-of-Staff Gen. Teerawat Boonyawat at the
army's headquarters.

The army also owns a large share of Thailand's radio stations and vast
swaths of real estate.

The financial shift on February 17 resulted from the Korat shopping
mall massacre.

That horror show began when Sgt. Jakrapanth shot dead his commanding
officer and the officer's mother-in-law, during allegations that the
two cheated the gunman when he purchased a house.

The army's allegedly corrupt welfare housing scheme was believed to
have pushed Sgt. Jakrapanth over the edge.

The commanding officer's mother-in-law allegedly operated a real
estate project which exploited soldiers who borrowed money to buy

Sgt. Jakrapanth "did not receive justice from his commander and his
relatives, who promised him financial returns," Gen. Apirat said.

The gunman, 32, then broke into his military base's armory in Korat by
killing a guard.

Sgt. Jakrapanth stole weapons, ammunition, and a Humvee which he used
during a three-hour drive through Korat when he shot dead several
random people before stalking through the crowded shopping mall firing
wildly, leaving a total death toll of 29.

After the attacks, Gen. Apirat said weapons at all bases would be
stored separately from ammunition, and security would be tightened.

Retired military officers would be booted out of welfare housing which
they had been enjoying rent-free.

Gen. Apirat however raised eyebrows when he said some senior officers
would keep their post-retirement pads because they were serving the

These lucky people include retired generals Prime Minister Prayuth
Chan-ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon.

"Other kinds of 'gray businesses' involving 'mafia soldiers' who
benefit from illegitimate deals, or by squeezing 'protection fees'
from the business sector," also need investigating, wrote Bangkok Post
Assistant News Editor, Chairith Yonpiam.

Thailand's biggest political opposition, the Future Forward Party
(FFP), demand an audit of the military's $580 million "off-budget"
spending for the 2020 fiscal year.

The FFP also wants to cut the military's additional $4 billion budget
and stop it buying expensive weaponry, including plans to purchase
three submarines from China.

FFP demands the military end conscription and cut the number of generals.

Commanders of the army, navy, and air force -- plus the chief of
defense forces, defense permanent secretary and the national police
chief -- wield political power as state officers and as senators in
the government-appointed, 250-member Senate.

The FFP and others oppose having an unelected Senate because it
benefits the military-backed government led by Prime Minister Prayuth.

After participating in a 2006 coup, Mr. Prayuth led a 2014 putsch when
he was army chief.

He ruled as head of a junta for five years, and was elected prime
minister in 2019.  He is also the current defense minister.

The military has been involved in 18 coups and attempted putsches
since 1932 and has ripped up 19 constitutions, which they helped
rewrite after each takeover.