Thailand: Old Money Versus New Money


June 21, 2010: In the last month, there has been an increase in Islamic terrorism in the south. About 5-6 people a week are being killed, and one or two attacks a day are the norm. Six years of violence have left over 4,100 dead down there. But the police have managed to get a sense of what they are up against. The core of the violence is a centuries old antipathy between Buddhist Thais and Moslem Malays. The two provinces in the south used to be an independent Moslem sultanate, until absorbed by Thailand a century ago. It was never a good fit. The Malays were not as ambitious, economically, as the Thais, and fell behind as the rest of the country industrialized and prospered. One thriving industry in the south was smuggling, especially drugs and guns. This provided a lucrative connection with Thai gangs to the north. Add to this the Islamic radicalism which has become so fashionable among young Moslems (especially those with little education and poor job prospects) in the last few decades, and you have yet another movement to expel non-Moslems from the south (who are resented for being better educated, more prosperous and, in general, different) and become an independent nation again. Thailand will never let that happen, and is determined to grind down the gangs and Islamic militants, which it has been doing for the past few years. In response, the attacks have increasingly been directed at local Moslems, who have been more frequently supporting government efforts to calm things down.

The Islamic terrorists down south are trying to use roadside bombs to intimidate the security forces. But not enough of these devices have been employed to have that effect. This indicates that few of the southern terrorists have the skills or resources to make and place these weapons. The government has released some data on the size of the Islamic radical movement down there. It is believed that there are 9,400 people in the south (out of a population of two million) participating in Islamic terrorism. Of these, 16 percent are leaders or nearly full time terrorists. Another 29 percent can be depended on to carry out attacks or actively support them. The remaining 55 percent are "supporters" who provide shelter and other material support (including information on what the police are up to.) The government apparently deduced these numbers from interrogations of several hundred Islamic radicals it has arrested, plus interviews with associates, friends and family of hundreds of dead terrorists.

The government refuses to call new elections, and the red shirts are preparing for another round of demonstrations. Many of the arrested leaders of the last round of unrest are being prosecuted, but many of those with clout (especially legislators) are being freed. About 300 people are under arrest, and there are arrest warrants for at least 800 more. The government intends to try and cripple red shirt leadership with prosecutions and imprisonment. No amnesty (for now) is being offered. The cabinet is undergoing changes, but to the red shirts, this is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the sinking Titanic.

Thus it's still a minority government that took power by force (an army coup) and continues to hold it by fraud (in the last elections) and more force (troops firing on red shirt demonstrators last month.) But now the army feels it has more power, because the generals were able to finally get their troops to open fire on the red shirts (without suffering mutinies and desertions, although there were some of the later). The May violence in the capital killed or injured about 2,000 people. There were relatively few fatalities (90), indicating that many soldiers were not out to kill. About a quarter of the casualties were security forces, but only 11 of the 90 dead were. Because so many of the soldiers come from the same parts of the country (the poor northeast) as the red shirts, the generals still have to be careful how they use them.

The government is also trying to make the case that this struggle is not between royalists and traditionalists, versus the poor majority. It's more of a battle between "old money" (including the aristocracy, military leaders and owners of long established large businesses) and "new money" (those who have made fortunes, or just done well, in the economic boom of the last few decades). The new money crowd feels an affinity with the rural poor (from which some of them came), but have also screwed the rural poor as much as the old money robber barons. But the new money have been more energetically populist, and have enlisted a lot of support from the rural poor.





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