Thailand: No More Mister Nice Guy


November 8, 2014: Over the last week the government announced a series of new measures to address the Islamic terrorism problem. This included a promise to achieve peace in the south by the end of 2015. To help make that happen an additional 2,000 police would be sent to the three Moslem provinces in the south with half the new police recruited from those three provinces. The government has recently distributed 2,700 assault rifles to self-defense volunteers in the south, mostly in rural Buddhist villages vulnerable to attack.  Some Moslem villages have received the rifles as well, because the Islamic terrorists are attacking Moslem villages they believe have turned against them. The presence of these armed volunteers discourages attacks. The navy has been ordered to form a new paramilitary ranger regiment over the next two years. These rangers would be stationed in the three Moslem provinces. This seems to imply that the government expects Islamic terrorism to remain a threat in the south even after incidences of it down there become nearly non-existent. The government pointed out that Islamic terrorist violence has diminished over the past few years because more Moslems in those three provinces had turned against the Islamic terrorists. That meant fewer young Moslems were joining the Islamic terrorist gangs and more people were tipping off the security forces about that local Islamic terrorists were up to. The government is also working closely with neighboring Malaysia, where many of the Thai Islamic terrorists spend some of their time and some of the terrorist leaders are based. The Malaysian government is willing to act on specific information they receive from Thailand (and make an arrest).

All these bellicose announcements come in the wake of earlier government statements about more peace talks. When they took over in May the generals proclaimed a willingness to resume peace negotiations with the Moslem rebels. None of the rebel groups responded and the reason appears to be unresolved disputes among the various separatist and Islamic terrorist groups responsible for the continuing violence. The key stumbling block in negotiations so far has been autonomy. The rebels are also upset that the government has not responded to calls for amnesty and some specific government proposals on what forms of autonomy would be acceptable. Another problem is lack of unity among the rebels. There are religious fanatics, Malay nationalists and criminal gangs and each of these three groups have goals which conflict with the others. The Islamic radicals want a religious dictatorship while the Malay nationalists do not and the gangs want to be free to indulge their lawless lifestyle. All these groups can agree on is the need to get free of ethnic Thai majority rule first. But there is also another force to be reckoned with; the Moslem population in general. They want peace and prosperity. Most want more education for their kids and more economic opportunities. All the different groups responsible for the rebel violence promised positive change and none have delivered. The violence has made things worse for the southern Moslem and they are increasingly hostile to the rebels who claim to be fighting for them. The rebels are instead seen as fighting for minority interests and at the expense of the Moslem majority. The government, both pre and post-coup, has been trying to exploit these divisions. It is understood that the unrest will not be completely eliminated as the presence of smuggling gangs down there has always been a source of violence and persistent illegal activities. But shutting down the last few terrorist cells would do much to restore what passes for peace in the south. This may or may not include a formal agreement with the separatist organizations. Many rebels now believe that the generals are determined to suppress the violence with force rather than any sort of negotiations and compromise. The government and the rebels now appear to agree on this point.

There is also the fact that the unrest in the south has been going on sporadically ever since Thailand gained control of the area centuries ago. For most of that time the Malays down there were independent or allied with (and paid tribute to) Thailand. But in 1909 Britain, which had conquered most of the Malay territory to the south, signed a treaty with Thailand that left the Thais owning what became the current three southern Moslem provinces. At the time, the Malays there considered this preferable to being ruled by the British. During World War II (1939-45) the Japanese took control of Malaysia and a local rebel movement sought to create an independent Malay state, incorporating the three Thai Moslem provinces as well. This did not happen, and the British regained control of Malay in 1945 and granted the area independence (as Malaysia) in 1957. Unrest continued in the three Malay provinces in Thailand, but was usually low key and considered a police matter. What made the current violence so severe was the addition of Islamic radicalism (instead of just Malay nationalism). The basic problem is that the Buddhist ethnic Thais often have a hard time getting along with the Moslem ethnic Malays (and vice versa). But until the Islamic radicals came along, urging the use of terrorism, the independence movement was not all that violent and the south was pretty quiet.  That changed on January 4th 2004 when Islamic terrorists raided a military warehouse to steal ammo and weapons. This set off a widespread (in the south) campaign of Islamic terrorism. Since then there have been more than 6,100 killed down there along with over 10,000 wounded. There have been over 11,000 violent incidents, most of them involving property damage or non-fatal assaults. In the last ten years Islamic terrorists in the south have killed nearly 200 teachers and burned or blown up over 300 schools. The Islamic terrorists oppose secular education and especially non-Moslem teachers. Low educations levels in the Moslem south means most of the teachers are Buddhists recruited from the wealthier and better educated north.  The "terrorists" are a combination of Islamic radicals (most of the two million people in the three southern provinces are Moslem), Malay nationalists (nearly all the Moslems are ethnic Malay, not Thai, which 97 percent of Thailand's population is) and gangsters (smuggling has long been a big business down there). The ethnic Thai majority refused (as they usually do) to back down in the face of Malay Moslem violence. But after years of futile violence the Moslem minority is increasingly hostile to the Islamic terrorists, and more frequently cooperating with the police. This happened gradually as it became obvious over the last decade that the Thai government was never going to give in. As a result of this, the militants turned on the Moslem civilians, which was a downward spiral that is gradually destroying the remaining popular support they have. The national government has also sent more economic aid to the south and improved the educational system. The army claims that in the last decade  the number of Islamic militants in the south has been reduced more than half, to a few thousand with only a few of them regularly carrying out fatal attacks. The overall violence has also declined but all this is mainly because more and more southerners are fed up with years of violence.

The military government, and their royalist backers, have long justified their extreme (overthrowing elected government) behavior with promises to do something about the corruption that is so common in Thailand. So it was surprising that the generals allowed a report, on the wealth of the 33 new cabinet members, to go public. The details in this report indicated that several of these people, especially military officers, were millionaires when they should not have been. That is, career army officers, even senior ones, don’t make enough money to justify getting rich. Explanations are waited. 

November 6, 2014: In the south (Pattani) a soldier who had been drinking turned his rifle on other soldiers, killing four and wounding four. The attacker then turned his rifle on himself, but was only able to wound himself. The army ordered an investigation to determine why this happened. Drinking incidents are not uncommon among soldiers, but not ones that involve firing their weapons. The attacker was a recent conscript who was believed having problems adjusting to military life.

November 4, 2014: The military government has threatened to impose censorship if media continues publishing news about former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in exile since 2008. The generals do not like Thaksin Shinawatra and have staged two coups (2008 and 2014) because of that dislike. In 2010 the courts moved to seize half of Shinawatra's fortune ($1.4 billion) as a fine for being corrupt. This was an unpopular move, since nearly all Thai politicians are corrupt and people wondered who was going to get the $1.4 billion. Populists threatened violence over the seizure, although Shinawatra, from exile in Dubai, urged calm and only non-violent demonstrations. Many royalists (especially the military) believed that Shinawatra was financing the populist violence with this money. The royalists have contempt for the poor in general and even the less educated royalists, and this is returned with resentment and growing anger towards the wealthier and better educated urban population that opposes majority rule. This anger was not diminished by the military government use of force against those demonstrating for fair elections and a restoration of democracy before 2011. Such class warfare is nothing new. There were similar outbreaks in the 1970s and 1990s. But the current anger is more widespread and having more of a negative impact on the economy. The 2011 elections did more than just remove yet another military government. Those elections made it clear that the trend was against such takeovers. There had been ten such military governments in the last four decades and 18 coups or attempts since 1932. Most Thais are tired of it and have demanded reforms to curb the ability of the military to take over. Trimming the power and influence of the military has not been easy and earlier this year there was yet another military takeover “for the good of the country.” Many in the military leadership believe that they have been losing a lot of the power and popular respect they have long enjoyed. It is becoming obvious that most Thais want the military out of politics for good. The military tried to remain neutral after elected government was restored in 2011. This was mainly because the generals feared that many of their troops were hostile to the anti-democratic royalists and more military intervention might tear the military apart. Eventually the generals decided to take over again anyway, urged on by persistent royalist street demonstrations. But now, as usual, the populists are enraged and civil war is again a threat.  

November 2, 2014: In the south (Narathiwat) Islamic terrorists drove into a Buddhist village and began firing on civilians, killing one and wounding three. But some armed villagers promptly came out and fired on the attackers, who then fled.

October 22, 2014: As is the custom when there is a military government, more equipment is being ordered. The navy and air force have purchased seven helicopters from European firm Airbus.

October 20, 2014: In the south police have captured and obtained confessions from Islamic terrorists responsible for burning down six schools.

October 17, 2014: Two Thai men were arrested and charged with organizing a scheme whereby 53 Bangladeshi men were recruited for jobs in Thailand but, once they arrived, were forced to first work for nothing to pay for their transportation and the recruiting fee. This form of debt slavery is a common scam in the region, especially in remote areas where it will not be noticed. This sort of thing is illegal in Thailand, but police don’t do anything unless a violation is reported. The persistent poverty in Burma and Bangladesh has led to an increase in this sort of people smuggling to Thailand, which has been the economic powerhouse in the region and a magnet for millions seeking jobs. The smugglers charge a lot of money, and those smuggled (also illegal) in become slaves for years until the fees are paid off. Sometimes the “slaves” are offered paying jobs once their debts are paid off but the system tends to keep the slaves in debt for life. In Thailand these debt slaves are common on rubber plantations and aboard fishing boats.

October 10, 2014: In neighboring Burma (southeastern Karen state) soldiers moving into territory controlled by Karen tribal rebels were being opposed by the rebels. This was nothing new but Thailand is no longer allowing Karen civilians to flee into Thailand to get away from such outbreaks of violence. Thailand has been dealing with tribal refugees fleeing Burma for decades and is no longer going to tolerate it. The rebels involved belong to the KNU (Karen National Union) and the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army). The DKBA had made peace with the government in the 1990s, but never felt it was getting a fair deal. In 2012 DBKA allied with the KNU rebels and resumed fighting. The two rebel groups are now negotiating a more comprehensive peace deal with the new "democratic" government. The tribal leaders understand that it's the same generals pretending to be democrats, but the generals appear willing to make some concessions for peace. So far the army has continued its aggressive ways and the Karen rebels keep fighting back. Locals report that some clashes with troops are not reported, even when the soldiers are at fault (and themselves inclined to keep quiet about it), in order to keep the peace talks going. This has been difficult and the Karen have often been at odds with the other tribal groups in the north over negotiating goals and methods.  Thailand encourages the peace efforts, but really has little influence inside Burma, except for the presence of rebel refugees in Thai camps. Thailand is now determined to get rid of this refugee problem once and for all.




Article Archive

Thailand: Current 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close