Thailand: Backing Away From China


January 11, 2018: Opinion surveys show the military government continuing to lose support. Popularity has fallen 18 percent from its late 2014 high of 7.02 (on a 1-10 scale). The economy is stuck with GDP growth between 3.6 and 4 percent. Elections are expected by the end of 2018, which may be just in time for the generals. Paying attention to what people want wins elections, not just ordering people to do what some generals and their cronies think is best. Eventually the coup must end or face the risk of a nationwide insurrection. As with past coups there will be elections and the generals want to ensure that a vindictive elected government doesn’t get power and seek revenge. The most obvious error the generals made was changing the constitution to give the military more power permanently. The other damaging policy was depending on China (for weapons and investment) despite the knowledge that such an approach drives away traditional (Western) business partners. The continuing decline in their ratings indicate a failure to deal with these problems.

Another obstacle is the fact that most Thais prefer to maintain the alliance with the United States rather than do more business with China. It was the American connection that made Thailand a popular (and profitable) place for Western (especially American) firms to set up Asian manufacturing operations since the 1960s. Thailand became one of the most prosperous nations in the region with per-capita GDP increasing tenfold from 1960 to 2016. Thais expect this to continue but instead Thai GDP growth has fallen behind all of the neighbors since the latest coup. The army realized the economic problems could not be ignored. Unemployment is still low but income was declining as are opportunities for getting better jobs. As far as the economy goes everyone else in the region is doing better and the military cannot hide that or explain it away.

Most Thais remember that in all the post-World War II coups (1951, 1957, 1958, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1991 and 2006) the economy improved after the army took over. So the army suffers when it fails here. Accepting major investments from China did not help as much impact as hoped. Worse, the increased presence of the Chinese was not welcome. Many Thais fear greater Chinese influence in the economy will hurt Thailand in the long run.

All Quieter On The Southern Front

One bring spot is in the Moslem south where the military governments’ efforts have led to a continuing decline in separatist and Islamic terrorist violence has declined to record low levels. The violence started in 2004 and mainly occurs in the three Moslem majority provinces nearest to Malaysia. In the last 14 years there were 15,164 violent incidents 4,235 involved firearms, 3,439 used bombs and 1,505 were arson. There have been 3,949 deaths (65 percent local civilians, 24 percent soldiers and police officers, three percent were teachers and clerics while two percent were terrorists with six percent local defense volunteers). The violence has been declining steadily since 2010 and the army has been withdrawing soldiers each year as they are replaced by local defense violence. Over the next few years there will be major reductions in the number of soldiers (currently 58,000) in the south.

A recent terrorism survey (GTI or Global Terrorism Index) showed Thailand making progress in in reducing Islamic terrorist violence compared to the rest of the world. In 2016 Thailand ranked number ten out of 163 nations. The top four slots were filled by the usual suspects (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Syria). The top ten nations by terrorist activity (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria, India, Somalia, Yemen, Philippines and Thailand) is more volatile and it seems likely that Thailand will drop out of the top ten. Note that most of the terror related deaths are Moslem related. Only India and the Philippines had a significant minority of terrorist deaths that were not carried out by Moslems. In those two countries the minority terrorists were leftist rebels who are slowly fading away.

At the end of 2017 the army revealed that it was investigating ten local (but unnamed) politicians for involvement in the violence. This was long suspected and the military and police found that a disproportionate number of terrorism suspects belonged to the families of ten wealthy politicians. One theory is that these politicians were seeking to discourage outside investment in the south as it would mean competition for local businesses owned by the ten families. This sort of violence in common (and ancient) throughout the region as local leaders seek to perpetuate their power.

January 10, 2018: The air force received the first four South Korean T-50 jet trainers it has on order. Another eight were ordered in July 2017 for $33 million each. This followed a 2015 order for four at about $28 million each. The T-50 can also operate as a ground attack aircraft. The first four aircraft were delivered on schedule. The first order included an option to buy twenty more. The T-50 will be used for advanced training of pilots for the Jas-39 and F-16 fighters used by the air force.

January 9, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) ten soldiers and local defense volunteers were wounded by a roadside bomb. Later in the day two suspects were arrested and others were being sought.

January 4, 2018: In the south (Yala province) soldiers arrested twenty people suspected of involvement with recent terror attacks.

January 3, 2018: The United States has agreed to build a maintenance center, including a parts storage warehouse, in Thailand to enable American made weapons used by the Thai military to get repairs and depot maintenance faster and cheaper. These facilities will be ready by 2019. This deal was first proposed in 2014 but suspended after the 2014 coup.

December 28, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat province) a roadside bomb was used in a failed attempt to attack an army patrol (five rangers). The radio controlled bomb was planted ineffectively and most of the explosion was directed away at the rangers, none of whom were injured. This was the worst of a number of Islamic terrorist incidents that occurred around New Years.

December 25, 2017: In the south (Yala and Narathiwat provinces) a number of coordinated attacks against the electrical distribution system left thousands of homes in several areas without power on Christmas Day. There were several injuries, mostly from vehicle accidents caused by the terrorists blocking roads or firing on passing vehicles.

December 21, 2017: Work officially began on $5.2 billion high speed 253 kilometer long railway that China is building from Bangkok to the Chinese border in northeastern Thailand. This first section in the capital is 3.5 kilometers long.




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