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How a Dictatorship Gets to Buy Swedish Fighter Planes

Over the last 10 years, the Thai military has overthrown two democratically-elected governments, imposing a state-of-emergency and martial law in Thailand. The constitution has been repealed, and one of the bloodiest conflicts in Asia continues to rage in the country’s southern regions. Still, Thailand has bought weapons—for millions of dollars—from Sweden, a country that has claimed arms neutrality since 1812 and with strict regulations on weapon exports to unstable nations. How did this happen?

An unknown number lights up the cellphone display. A man introduces himself as a reader who appreciated an article I wrote about how Swedish blockbuster films were used to promote a large order of JAS-39 Gripen fighter planes to Thailand.

”Do you want to know how the Thai JAS-39 Gripen deal went down?” he asks.

I am silent for a second, before I ask him to go on.

The man has served in the Government Offices for a long time. He has closely followed Swedish efforts to export weapons and military aircraft, yet as a loyal public servant he has never openly criticized his employer, nor told anyone about the confidential documents he’s privy to. Until now.

He wants to remain anonymous and demands I protect him as a confidential source. We can call him ”A”. He beings telling his story cautiously, then the details become more and more detailed, and, intriguing.

The way weapon deals were handled with Thailand bothered A. He especially dislikes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ involvement and actions. Foreign Affairs gave in to lobbyists of the Swedish weapons industry, and that’s why the truth has been hidden, he says.

Three years have passed since our first conversation. There would be many more. This is A’s story.

Finbesök. Kungaparet fick inte kopplas till den försäljningskampanj för svenska vapen som pågick samtidigt som statsbesöket 2005. Foto: Peppe Arninge/TT

2. State Visit

On Saturday, February 17, 2005, a Gulfstream plane with members of the Swedish government headed for Bangkok. It was time for the annual state visit and official reception with the Thai King, in Hua Hin.

Elevated, stage-like, in the middle of the custom-designed cabin sat the Swedish King and Queen. Foreign Minister Thomas Bodström and various higher-ranking government officials (including a Thai minister with his wife) filled the eight comfortable chairs up front. The lower-ranking government officials, the Swedish Security Service and staff of the royal court stayed in the back of the plane

Shortly before landing, Foreign Minister Bodström woke up to a scraping sound. On the floor he saw the Thai minister crawling by on all fours, pushing a pile of gifts in front of him. The minister’s wife crawled right behind him.

According to Thai custom, all subjects have to be on a lower level than the king and queen, which prompted the crawling exercise. Because of an extremely tight schedule, there was no time for a gift ceremony during the two days the king and queen would spend in Thailand. That was resolved by sending the Thai minister along on the plane, where the presents could be awarded to the royals onboard.

As always during a state visit, there were months of meticulous planning. Every item on the agenda, down to the meals, had been approved by the Thai Foreign Ministry’s protocol. After countless e-mails, meetings and trips, the security guards were ready, the luxury suites booked, the transportation companies hired and the welcome choir knew their repertoire by heart.

Since the vist was just a few months after the tsunami hit Thailand, the Swedish king wanted to devote part of the state visit to honor the many Swedes and Thai who perished in the natural disaster. Among other places, the royals were destined for Phuket. There, they would take a helicopter tour over the island, Khao Lac, one of the most-affected areas hit by the enormous tidal wave. Much of the tourist paradise remained in shambles.

Coordinators for the Swedish Foreign Ministry and Thai representatives, could not find a proper establishment in Khao Lac, so the king and queen had to prepare for a later lunch, at 13.00, when they’d be back in Phuket.

In connection with the royal visit, a whole range of Swedish corporate heads and industrial representatives had also arrived in Bangkok. With help of the monarch, they hoped that new markets and entrepreneurial opportunities would open up in royal-loving Thailand.

The now-former Minister of Justice, Thomas Bodström, described a scene from the dinner at Hotel Oriental in Bangkok. After a few cocktails the Swedish King and the then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra supposedly joked about how dumb it was to be a suicide bomber: “Then you don’t get to see the results.” The conversation topic made the Swedish Queen look uncomfortable.

But the king hadn’t come to party with the Thai prime minister. Behind the lavish dinners, helicopter tours and the waving of flags, was another agenda. Something that wasn’t under the official royal protocol and which could seem somewhat cynical—a few months after about 230,000 people had lost their lives in the tsunami.

Representatives of the Swedish defense industry also stood at his majesty’s side. During the day those representatives held meetings with representatives of the Thai military and decision makers; in the evenings they socialized with the Swedish royal couple.

Ten years later, that trip and those meetings resulted in: 12 Gripen fighter planes parked at an air force base in the Thai province, Surat; their navy has been provided with Swedish canons and combat systems; and the army has received an arsenal of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) as well as the recoilless rifle, Carl Gustaf, (named after the Swedish king.)

Today Thailand is one of the biggest clients of Swedish weaponry in the world. The question is: How did this happen? Basically nothing has leaked about how the government managed to beat competing arms- producing nations like the U.S., China or Russia.

Premiärministrar. Göran Persson möter sin motpart Thaksin Shinawatra i regeringsbyggnaden i Bangkok, 2004. Foto: Sakchai Lalit/TT

3. The Campaign

Attempts to sell the Saab-manufactured JAS-39 Gripen, a light single-engine multirole air craft, to Thailand had been going on since the 1990s without success. But in January 2004, about one year before the Swedish royal visit, Göran Persson, (then-Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democratic party), gave it another try. At this point, the JAS-project was in a critical stage. Funding had run out and Saab had empty order forms. By now the efforts to develop a Swedish fighter craft had cost taxpayers somewhere in the range of 10 billion dollars.

Göran Persson made efforts to export Gripen, but business didn’t seem to pick up. The Prime Minister traveled around the world, hoping that any country but his own would want to buy some fighter planes.

The only country that had shown an interest was South Africa. But it would later be revealed that the deal had been helped along with bribes upward of 60 million dollars. Other countries had also, after suspected bribes, leased used Gripen fighters.

Together with Åke Svensson, the CEO of Saab at this time, Göran Persson traveled to Bangkok. He had ambitious plans but wasn’t met by much enthusiasm. Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister, pretty much openly said that he wanted American fighter planes.

Thaksin Shinawatra also began putting forth difficult demands. If they were going to do business, the Swedes would have to make considerable counter purchases from Thailand. One product offered was frozen chicken. Because of the bird flu [Avian influenza] that was spreading in Asia at this time, the European Union had placed an import ban and Thailand was in desperate need to get rid of the growing surplus of frozen chicken. Thailand also had a large surplus of rice, and Thaksin Shinawatra suggested also that as a countertrade for the planes deal.

Göran Persson brought the message home. He was hesitant about the Thai demands, but still decided to go ahead and launch a JAS-39 Gripen marketing effort. The agenda was coordinated with Swedish politicians, governmental officials, military experts and Saab executives, and a plan to woo the Thais was set in motion. There were formal and informal courting efforts, meetings, cultural events and traditional marketing campaigns. And all of this would be topped by a royal Swedish visit.

The Prime Minister realized that the Thai were hard to persuade. As long as Thaksin Shinawatra held power, it would require a great deal to outrival the Americans. And, Göran Persson moderately thrilled about the frozen Thai chickens.

Massaker. Den 28 april 2004 stormade den thailändska armén Krue Se-moskén i Pattani. Över hundra personer dog. Foto: Apichart Weerawong/TT

4. The Assault

On April 28, 2004, the Thai army fielded tanks and RPGs against a group of young men who were mostly armed with knives. More than 100 of them were killed or executed with a bullet to the head from soldiers. The storming of the Krue Se mosque, outside Pattani in the southern region, is considered among the worst military assaults in Thailand’s history. The incident has been condemned by a number of human rights organizations and the attack gave new fuel to the long-running conflict in southern Thailand—one of Asia’s bloodiest.

Just a few months after this assault, the Swedish Foreign Ministry conducted an analysis of the political situation in Thailand. The aim was to investigate whether Saab would get permission to market the Swedish fighter aircraft JAS-39 Gripen in the country or not.

The analysis was sent to the ISP, a state agency that decides to which countries Sweden is allowed weapons exportation. Based on this analysis, the ISP conducted a legal assessment to determine whether Thailand complied with the Swedish arms export rules or not. Among other things, the ISP would decide whether Thailand’s human rights violations were “serious” and “systematic” or not.

“The foreign ministry department’s analysis held great weight and would have a decisive influence on the decisions the ISP took,” A says.

The department’s analysis was mainly done by Jonas Hafström, who was the Swedish ambassador in Thailand at this time. But what he came up with, how he assessed the army’s attack in the south and the overall political developments in Thailand, has long been unknown.

The report he submitted to the ISP is classified and none of the involved authorities and ministries has wanted to reveal its content. Jonas Hafström, who today is chairman of the Lund University Board, also declines to comment.

“Regarding the issue of the sale of military equipment between Sweden and Thailand, I will have to refer you to the Government Offices,” he writes in an e-mail.

I call A. His picture is clear.

“Hafström chose to give a way-too-glossy picture of the status of the country. The problems were toned down while the positive elements of the development was highlighted,” he says.

The analysis was designed so that ISP would be able to give Saab permission to market Gripen in Thailand.

“It’s completely unbelievable that they could come up to the conclusion that advanced Swedish weapons systems would not be used against the Thai population,” says A.

According to A, it was widely known at the Swedish Foreign Ministry Department that there were big problems with democracy and human rights in Thailand. But that was not the image that the Department chose to present. Instead, the situation at hand was embellished to the point that it became possible to approve Swedish armament exports.

“The political situation in Thailand was described in an overly bright light,” says A.

Militärkupp. I september 2006 rullade stridsvagnar in i Bangkok och demokratin sattes ur spel. Foto: Adrees Latif/Reuters/TT

5. Coup D’état

On September 19, 2006 tanks rolled into Bangkok. A military junta had taken power. Martial law was imposed, and curfews were put in place. The coup-makers had quashed the constitution and overthrown the government.

A few weeks later the coup-makers, who named themselves the “National Security Council”, appointed the retired general and army chief, Surayud Chulanont as Prime Minister.

During the coup d’état, the elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York, from where he could never return. The coup also halted the ongoing procurement of the fighter. For a few months it looked bleak for the Swedes. The big marketing machine that had been started by ministerial visits, trade delegations, official dinners and the royal visit appeared to have been in vain.

In November 2006, something unexpected happened. In a classified letter, entitled “Urgent,” written by Ambassador Jonas Hafström, the Swedish Government was informed that talks in the fighter plane deal with Thailand had resumed. Now it was the military junta that would buy the aircrafts and the Gripen project found itself in an entirely new situation.

The message from Hafström is crystal clear: Sweden must immediately produce a new and updated offer to Thailand. The letter also shows that the military junta has decided to increase the defense budget by 34 percent in 2007. The budget increase included the first payment for fighter planes.

Sweden found itself in a peculiar position. That the ISP would give permission to sell armament to a junta was out of the question. The hope was therefore that the junta would return power to an elected government, and then, possibly, a so-called exit permit could be issued.

At this point, the trade authorization that the ISP had issued in 2004—when Thailand was still a democracy—was still valid. The sales campaign could therefore resume with full force. The Swedish government was allowed to negotiate arms sales, worth billions of SEK, directly with an unofficial military group.

The details, how this could have happened, are still fuzzy. Aside from Hafström’s letter to the Foreign Ministry, all documents from the Gripen campaign have been classified. In January 2015, I requested all documentation concerning this deal from the embassy in Bangkok. It took 17 weeks before I received 53 pages of information regarding the Gripen deal.

More than 80 percent of the text was blacked out with a permanent marker, classified by a legal unit with the Swedish Foreign Ministry. Even reference numbers and dates when the documents had been issued had been marked out. Many documents were not included at all, since they had been classified in their entirety.

Not even A had much insight into the sales campaign after the military took power in Thailand—others were in charge of this. But, it’s likely that the game had changed.

Among other things, the junta wanted to buy used Gripen fighter planes, directly from the Swedish Defense Materiel Administration (FMV). Buying newly-produced aircraft from Saab’s factory in Linköping, which was the original plan, would be too expensive. It is also highly likely that Thailand’s demands of counter purchases of frozen chicken and rice disappeared after Thaksin Shinawatra was forced to leave the country.

Instead, the junta received other fine offers from Sweden. According to the Embassy in Bangkok, there is nothing that can be labeled a counter purchase, but some of the Swedish proposals were geared to entice the Thai junta.

For one, scholarships for Thai officers to study at Swedish universities and colleges were offered. In total, 37 officers have received their education paid by Swedish means.

This is not public information, but has been carefully hidden under layers of foreign affairs and business confidentiality.

I contact the Defense Export Agency, FXM, who is in charge of the secret agreements between Sweden and Thailand. There must be a way to learn more. If the scholarships have been awarded to individuals who are close to or high-ranking in the Thai junta, it is a question of corruption.

Nobody at FXM wants to talk. They won’t tell me how much it cost or names of those who have received the scholarships. They do share in an e-mail, however, that the Thai army got to chose who they wanted to send to Sweden and that it was they who wanted the educational opportunity.

Sålt. Thailands köp av Jas tillkännages på en presskonferens den 17 oktober 2007.

6. The Deal

At a press conference in October 2007, the Thai Air Force announced that they would buy six JAS-39 Gripen for more than 500 million dollars as a first portion of the deal. In addition to the fighter jets, spare parts, additional military equipment and training was included. At a later date they would possibly order another six planes.

At this time, Thailand was still ruled by the military. A democratic election was promised, but it would not be held until two months later. Parts of the country were still under a state of emergency.

For most people, the junta’s decision to buy Swedish fighter planes came as a shock. The negotiations had taken place covertly, and many questioned whether the Swedish legislation on arms export allowed trade with military dictatorships.

On October 19, the issue was debated in parliament. The Green Party and the leftist were appalled. Thailand lacked respect for human rights and the ongoing conflict in the southern parts of the country should make a sale impossible, they raged.

The Social Democrats (Persson’s party) chose to keep a lower profile. Coincidentally, this is also when the big WikiLeaks scandal revealing documents of the US Embassy in Bangkok went down. It appeared that the United States had withdrawn from the junta’s aircraft procurement because American laws do not allow weapons sales to military dictatorships. In other words, JAS-39 Gripen would have won the bid either way.

Hans Linde of the Left Party (LP) pounced. He asked Trade Minister Ewa Björling, member of the Moderate Party (M), how it could be that the U.S. of all countries had tighter arms export laws that Sweden?

But the Trade Minister dismissed the jab.

“I note, in this context, that the Left Party does not hesitate to spread unfounded rumors. The information that the choice fell on JAS-39 Gripen, would have been founded due to that the legal framework of the U.S. does not allow arms export to Thailand, is incorrect. I have received confirmation that the U.S. does not have a weapons embargo against Thailand,” Ewa Björling (M) said in parliament.

During the debate, the Trade Minister also pointed out that a Gripen deal could only be signed after public elections had been carried out in Thailand. Before then, there was no agreement.

Hence, the government chose to await the return of democracy. Only after an election, the deal would be reviewed on the basis of Swedish regulations. The state of emergency and tanks on the streets of Bangkok were reduced to a historical parenthesis, and while the brutal rule by the military group continued, the Swedes played a waiting game.

Mottagningskommitté. Thailändare i väntan på att det svenska kungaparet ska anlända till Phuket 2005. Foto: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters/TT

7. The Election

Immediately after Thai elections took place in December 2007, the Swedish Foreign Ministry again had the task of assessing the country’s political situation. By now, Klas Molin had taken over as head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia Department, and was one of several people involved. This analysis is also classified, and Klas Molin, who later became ambassador in Bangkok, would not comment on its content.

But A has a clear picture.

“The analysis was neglectful,” he says.

The truth had been manipulated to the point that the ISP could give permission for the export of the Gripen fighters. Again.

According to A, the Foreign Ministry made its assessment under strong pressure from defense industry lobbyists. One of them was Erik Belfrage. He had long been a top name in the Wallenberg sphere, a Swedish financial dynasty, and served on the board of Saab’s defense division. One of his many tasks was to sell arms abroad and in particular, Gripen fighter planes.

“Officials at the Government Offices used to jokingly call him the Wallenberg ‘hitman,’” A says.

Erik Belfrage, who among other things, came along during the state visit in 2005, had all the contacts needed for this kind of mission.

He was close to the Swedish royal family through his appointment to the nominating committee for a royal award given by the king to business innovators with foreign backgrounds. Erik Belfrage was also president of the International Council of Swedish Industry, NIR, an organization owned by the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. NIR has for many years received large grants from Sida, a government agency working on behalf of the Swedish parliament with the mission to reduce poverty in the world, in order to “open doors” for Swedish companies in unstable countries.

Meanwhile, Erik Belfrage’s brother, Frank Belfrage, State Secretary at the Foreign Office, directly subordinate to the former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt as the highest ranking public official in the Foreign Ministry, could give his brother direct access to the Swedish government, A explains.

For all parties involved, it was obvious that the king played an important role in the marketing of the Swedish armaments. But it was just as important that it was kept under wraps. During the state visits, for example, there was a clear boundary between the royal couple’s agenda and other activities.

“No mention of arms deals is supposed to be made when the king is traveling. But Belfrage’s programs likely included contacts with the Thai defense department. Representatives of the national defense were invited to attend the gala dinners, but when the king was present, other topics were discussed,” says A.

According to A, the Swedish king was essential in convincing the Thai army to purchase weapons. First and foremost, the Thai people are extremely fond of their royals, so it helped a great deal that the Swedish and Thai courts have close relations, and the Thai army is in turn close to its royal house.

Over the years, the two royal houses have enjoyed a great exchange, says A. In addition to the state visit in 2005, the Swedish royal couple has made several trips to Thailand, helping to create goodwill during the intense marketing campaign.

Jas. Efter en lång försäljningskampanj, som inleddes på 1990-talet, lyckades Sverige sälja tolv flygplan till Thailand. Foto: Shutterstock

8. Martial law

On May 22, 2013, it was time for the next military coup in Thailand. A state of emergency was declared with curfews and martial law imposed, and the constitution repealed, once again. The army claimed it wanted to restore order after a long period of violent political demonstrations had shaken the country.

Armed troops moved in to remove the protesters from the streets. The occupation led to strong protests from the US, EU and the UN. Secretary of State, John Kerry, said the U.S. would look over its military cooperation with Thailand after the coup d’état.

The Swedish reactions were more restrained. Foreign Minister Carl Bildt posted a 133-character tweet, in which he expressed his disapproval and hope for a return to constitutional rule.

And the Swedish arms deliveries continued. As recently as 2014, three arms shipments were exported to Thailand. They consisted mainly of a naval combat system and the recoilless rifle, Carl Gustaf.

So what does it take for the Swedish arms deliveries to end? I call ISP’s Deputy Secretary General, Jan-Erik Lövgren. Ultimately, ISP is organization that determines whether a country should be allowed to buy Swedish weapons or not.

Everything is classified around this process, but, Jan-Erik Lövgren confirms that the Foreign Affairs’ analyses does play an important role in ISP decision-making. He declines, however, to comment on how important these analyses were in the Thailand case.

According to Jan-Erik Lövgren, it has never been illegal to supply Thailand with weapons. Not even now, under the current military power, is there an embargo.

Sweden has, however, adopted special rules, which dictate that all matters of Thailand must be brought to the ISP’s director for review. And these rules still apply.

According to Jan-Erik Lövgren, no decisions to export weapons have been granted after the latest coup. That arms shipments are still being sent to Thailand hinges on rules of supplementary deliveries, he maintains. ISP only stops completion orders if there’s a weapons embargo against a country. Does the ISP recognize violations of human rights in Thailand?

Jan- Erik Lövgren is quiet for a moment and then says:

“No, not with the definition ‘serious, widespread and systematic,’ which would be the terms for an export license to not be granted.

Nils Resare 

Stockholm the 30th of September 2015