With the March 24 national elections democracy will restored but it won’t be a return to the past. The military has managed to enact new laws that give the military political power it never had before. Aside from permanent control of the 250 member Senate, the new lese majeste (saying anything disrespectful of the king) laws can be broadly interpreted by the military. These laws allow the government to take Thai TV or radio networks off the air for a one month or more and jail individuals for 15 years or more. Even criticizing the lese majeste laws are an offense. Since taking power in 2014 about a hundred people have been prosecuted by the military government for lese majeste offenses. Thais had long tolerated very strict laws against lese majeste but now much of that support is gone. That’s because the generals can now prosecute people because their PC or smartphone displayed a web page containing disrespectful (to the generals or the king) material. But because the military government has also been unable to control the Internet it cannot just shut down all electronic media. The generals found that despite threats made to FaceBook and Google to censor material the military found offensive it could not be done. This effort was prompted by the growing number of Thai Internet critics fleeing the country (to avoid arrest) and continuing to use social media (especially Facebook and YouTube) to share items critical of the military government. The military realizes that while the creators of this offending Internet material are beyond their reach most of those who view (or post comments on) this stuff are inside Thailand and available for arrest and punishment. While the major social network outlets have cooperated in removing what the military government declares “illegal” material there are many other ways such offending content can be distributed via the Internet and the major Internet firms refuse to attempt the impossible (police the Internet for Thai military). In response, the military has looked into other solutions. In 2017 the military obtained (apparently with Chinese help) the software and technical assistance required to implement identifying those Internet users in Thailand who are viewing the illegal material. This move is not surprising to Thais and if fully implemented will not make the military government any more popular nor will it keep the offending material from circulating. The Chinese censors don’t like to dwell on that fact. But with the return of democracy and the apparently large portion of the voters seeking to undo much of what the military government did, the battle between democracy and military rule is not yet over.
Another problem the military has created is the possibility that the next political opposition movement will call for the elimination of the monarchy. This was not really possible until the current king took power and made it clear he was different. Unlike his predecessor, the new king already had an unsavory reputation. To make matters worse the new king made a deal with the military government that would, in theory, benefit both of them in the long run. First, the former crown prince assured everyone that he would behave. In return, the military government freed the monarchy from constitutional and parliamentary restrictions that were part of the 1930s deal that turned the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. The military government was changing the constitution when the old king died in 2016 and that presented a rare opportunity for the new king to gain more power for the monarchy. The generals need the backing of the king because they justified their 2014 coup by insisting they were doing it to protect the monarchy. The old king was not enthusiastic about that but had learned to stand back. In 2016 the military got their new constitution ratified in a referendum and the king approved it in early 2017.
This sort of behavior by the new king was not a sure thing. For nearly half a century the crown prince has been misbehaving and since the 1990s, with the arrival of cheaper digital photography and phone cameras, a lot more embarrassing photos and videos of the crown prince were created. As soon as it seemed likely that the prince would become king a lot of these photos appeared on the Internet and that made the new king, and his military backers, look bad. It was probably for that reason that some critics of the military government were arrested on vague charges of trying to overthrow the monarchy. All this was absurd because if there was one thing most Thais could agree on was the popularity of the kings’ long-ruling father. The former crown prince and current king is another matter. The Thai monarch generally stays out of politics and everyone feels that if things get really bad the king will step in. That rarely happened because the old king had more popularity than political power and was used as a symbol by anti-populist traditionalists and as a source of ultimate salvation by pro-democracy groups. After all, it was a king who established democracy in the 1930s (to avoid a civil war) and Thais were expecting more of the same to avoid another one. But that beloved king Bhumibol died in October 2016 and his successor has much less moral authority. Those who have called for the elimination of democracy in the past are no longer a tiny minority but rapidly expanding to become a majority.
The new king helped persuade the pro-democracy groups (which still have the majority of voters with them) to remain calm and they have. In late 2015 pro-democracy leader (and former prime minister) Thaksin Shinawatra called on his followers (the “red shirts”) to “play dead” for the moment and wait for the military government to allow elections. The military had agreed to elections in 2018 but only after some fundamental changes were made in the constitution. The problem was that the new rules give the military permanent power and privileges that an elected government would have a difficult time (via changing the constitution) repealing. The red shirts are not pleased with all this but were persuaded, despite more delays. Now elections were promised at the end of 2018 but so are a host of new laws that make democracy much less democratic.
Shinawatra pointed out to his followers that red shirt violence simply gave the military another excuse to hold onto power. The May 2014 coup came after months of political protests in the capital and those tensions remain. The new king and the generals recognize that most Thais are fed up with the coups. There have been twelve of them since a constitutional monarchy replaced the centuries old absolute monarchy after World War I. The royals have learned to keep their heads down, even though the military has always been staunchly royalist. The army and the new king believe they have solved this problem with “reforms” in the pre-coup constitution.
Pro-democracy Thais have also become more adept at dealing with coups, especially since the Internet and social media proved immune to army efforts to control Internet use. New ally China admitted that even when you employ an enormous Internet censorship bureaucracy and some very effective technology the unwelcome (for the government) messages still get through. Moreover, sites like Facebook are tremendously popular in Thailand, for royalists and populists alike. Thus the army was forced to come out and say it would never shut down Facebook access in Thailand or seriously threaten Internet access. Pro-democracy groups organized flash mobs and similar actions to remind the generals and the foreign media that this crisis was not over. While the red shirts have lots of popular support, most Thais are more interested in economic issues and the army at first was to deal with that because of widespread opposition to military rule in Thailand and abroad.
The king and armed forces believe they will still have more power even when the country is again run by an elected government. The democrats note that long-term the kings and dictators lose. Most royalists recognize that if the king becomes too unpopular the monarchy could be abolished, as it already has throughout the region. Actions have consequences.
The peace talks with southern separatist groups, which began in 2014, are stalled because the separatists refuse to make a deal until there is an elected government in Thailand. Now that elections are scheduled there still remains another obstacle. The largest separatist group, BRN, has refused to negotiate unless there are international mediators. The Thai government refuses to allow foreigners to play a role and has never expressed any interest in any autonomy deal. But the last elected government did show interest in some sort of special status for the three Moslem provinces. But with the continued (and recently increased) violence down there that interest in a special status may be pushed aside by a new government putting its first priority in undoing all the political changes the military government put in place.
An elected government is expected to have the same attitude. Despite all that, the newly elected Malaysian leader is seeking a way to get the peace talks going, if only because those three provinces are becoming a sanctuary for Malaysian Islamic terrorists. The Malaysian terrorists are fairly secure in those three Thai provinces as long as they stay out of sight and cause no trouble. But from their Thai hideouts, they can organize fatal mayhem in Malaysia.
Meanwhile, the violence in the south continues to decline. In 2017 there were 140 violent (often non-fatal) incidents in the three Moslem provinces. That’s a 90 percent reduction from the peak year (2007) and the decline continued into 2018. While the violence continues to fade it shows no signs of going away completely. The violence has waned mainly because the government (elected or military) sent more troops and more economic development cash to the south. That, plus the fact that most southerners lose faith in the violence after a few years. There are still diehard separatists down south, as well as a criminal underground (mainly smugglers) to sustain the separatists. There was an upsurge in violence at the end of 2018 and in early 2019 but nothing dramatic and apparently an effort by more extreme separatist factions to trigger military intervention by Malaysia. That was never likely but the separatists are running out of options.
January 28, 2019: In the south (Yala promise,) a policeman was ambushed and killed by Islamic terrorists.
Throughout the country, the website for early (March 4-17) voting opened and crashed because too many people sought to register. Over two million people are expected to vote early. This is the first free election in seven years and turnout is expected to be heavy and generally anti-military. There are 50 million potential voters and a quarter of them are age 18-35. The military government passed laws that granted the military more political power but that may not be enough to prevent an angry electorate from replacing those laws with more democratic ones.
January 26, 2019: In the south (Narathiwat province), two bombs went off, each in a different location. Neither bomb caused any injuries. The first one was a roadside bomb that damaged the road but not the military vehicle that was passing by. A smaller roadside bomb went off later that night and again passing troops (on motorcycles) were not injured. There was no road damage either.
In Malaysia, the government announced it was canceling a $20 billion railroad project sponsored by the Chinese. The Malaysians determined that the project was too costly and the government could not afford it. The previous government that approved the deal was generally believed to be corrupt and willing to take bribes from the Chinese to approve such a deal.
January 22, 2019: The king approved elections for March 24th, a month later than expected. With this announcement, campaigning can begin and the military governments’ ban on groups of more than five people appearing in public are lifted, along with other bans that limited organized political activity. However, the military government will maintain tight controls over social media, which is favored by younger voters and these voters appear to be very hostile to any candidates backed by the military.
January 18, 2019: In the south (Narathiwat province), two bombs went off and wounded five soldiers. The first bomb was near an army vehicle but caused no injuries. The troops fired on men in the bushes and advanced towards them when the second bomb went off wounding five soldiers. About fifteen minutes earlier troops raided a nearby rubber plantation and a gun battle took place with five armed men. One of the terrorists was killed while the others got away leaving blood trails behind.
Elsewhere in the province ten armed men on motorcycles entered a Buddhist temple compound, opened fire and fled. Two monks were killed and two wounded. This attack on a Buddhist temple and the monks who serve there caused an uproar throughout the country.
January 13, 2019: In the south (Pattani province), a policeman was killed when six armed men on motorcycles rode by a police station firing their weapons.
January 12, 2019: In the south (Pattani province), two Islamic terrorists, believed responsible for killing for defense volunteers two days ago, were cornered and killed. A defense volunteer and a civilian were wounded during five hour gun battle. The two dead men had long arrest records and were wanted by police.
January 10, 2019: In the south (Pattani province), four defense volunteers guarding a school were fired on and killed by several Islamic terrorists.
January 8, 2019: The army has received two more Mi-17V5 helicopters. The army already has received five of these and apparently won’t get any more than what they have now. Back in 2016, the army sought to buy twelve Russian Mi-17V5s but the military government was unsure that the money ($280 million) could be found in the budget quickly enough. As is usually the custom during periods of military rule, a lot of new military equipment is ordered. While the next civilian government can cancel some of these orders they usually do not cancel them all. This is because the military knows to order stuff that can be delivered (and paid for) quickly. The Russians and Chinese can deliver fast enough for this and the prices are low. The army also wants to order 14 more Chinese VT4 tanks before the elections. In 2016 the army already had ordered 28 VT4/MBT-3000 tanks from China. These are export models of the Type 98/99 tanks, the most modern China has. Even so, the Type 98/99 is basically an improved Russian T-72 that sells for about $5.4 million each. If the army is satisfied with the MBT-3000 it wanted to buy as many as 150. It already has 39 and if it gets an additional 14 that will probably be all they get until the next coup.
January 4, 2019: The government offered to invite southern separatist group BRN to peace talks. That was ignored by BRN which does not want to negotiate with the military government.
December 30, 2018: In the south (Narathiwat province), two bombs were used in a failed attempt to bring down electricity transmission lines. There were similar bombings on the 29th and 28th. There was also a failed attack on a military base on the 28th.