Thailand: That New Black Magic Annoys The Generals

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September 11, 2014: There have been twelve coups in Thailand in the last 80 years, since a constitutional monarchy replaced the century’s old absolute monarchy. Most Thais are getting tired of it, especially since there was one in 2006 and another last May. This time around the military is having a lot more difficulty (than in past coups) controlling what people say about them in public. Unless the army does the impossible, and shuts down access to social media sites like Facebook, popular resistance to whatever the military government is doing will have an Internet platform on which to spread and grow. The military is responding with orders to arrest anyone who appears to be leading resistance to the coup. But the number of anti-coup opponents are so numerous that trying to decapitate the opposition by taking most leaders out of action is not working. The opposition has plenty of competent replacements for lost leaders and too many ways for coup opponents to get their comments into circulation. Local army commanders all over the country are reporting many small, but seemingly coordinated, acts of resistance. It is more than they can handle and senior generals are unable to comprehend, much less cope with it. One senior general accused the opposition of using black magic against the coup leadership.

The military has responded with more arrests and more vigorous (violent) interrogations but they are not getting the answers they want to hear. It is frustrating but there is little sympathy from most Thais, who are more interested in the economy than the hurt feelings of confused generals. The generals also sense that after this period of military rule is over they will lose even more power and see the military budget shrink more (in relative terms, as a percentage of GDP). Because of that perception (which appears pretty accurate) the generals may try to hang onto power longer than in the past and that would mean more bloodshed as the general population reasserts its power.

The economy is not doing too well, especially after the May coup. The tourist business, which is ten percent of GDP, took a major hit in June, when there were 11 percent fewer foreign visitors than in June 2013. The generals justified their latest coup by insisting that restoring order was essential to economic growth. Foreign tourists were not convinced. So far this year tourist arrivals are down over ten percent. The biggest drop (17 percent) is from East Asian tourists (China, Japan and South Korea especially).

One of the more futile tactics the generals are pursuing is Internet censorship. They are taking it one step further, or at least trying to, by seeking to implement a system that would attempt to detect what web pages Thais are visiting and identify those visiting pages that are hostile to the military or the king. Thai has long tolerated very strict laws against “lese majeste” (saying anything disrespectful of the king). Now the generals want to prosecute people because their PC or smart phone displayed a web page containing disrespectful (to the generals or the king) material. That effort is going to be interesting to observe, unpleasant for those caught up in it and frustrating for those trying to use it to calm down the population. Then again, this new system may never get off the ground. It’s unclear if the orders to create it have resulted in anything that even appears to work. But you can see where the generals are going with this sort of thing.

Meanwhile there still the mess in the south. The unrest down there 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 some weapons. This set off a widespread (in the south) campaign of Islamic terrorism. Since then there have been more than 6,000 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 171 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.

Since they took over in May the generals have proclaimed a willingness to resume peace negotiations. So far none of the rebel groups have responded. The key stumbling block in negotiations so far has been autonomy. 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 other two. 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 the ethnic Thai majority 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 three of the rebel groups promised positive change and none have delivered. The violence has made things worse for the civilians in the south and they are increasingly hostile to the rebels who claim to be fighting for them. The rebels are increasingly seen as fighting for minority interests and at the expense of the 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 more violence. But shutting down the last few terrorist crews that are responsible for the continued attacks 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.

September 1, 2014: The military has formed a new cabinet and most of the key jobs went to military officers.

August 31, 2014: The king granted the generals permission to form a new cabinet and thus a new “interim” government. The official plan is that there will again be elections, eventually, but not before October 2015 at the earliest.

August 28, 2014: In the south a roadside bomb killed a female teacher as she and her armed escort drove by. This was the worst terror incident in the area in over a month.

There was another act of piracy near the Malacca Strait when a Thai tanker was seized by pirates off the Malaysian coast while travelling from Singapore to Thailand. The crew were locked in the engine room while the pirates disabled all communications and transferred the cargo to another tanker that came alongside. Within 24 hours the pirates were gone and the crew were set free. This is the tenth such incident in the area since April. In July pirates seized a tanker going from Singapore to Borneo and stole 2,500 tons of marine (for ship engines) diesel. The cargo was worth over two million dollars and the pirates got it all. The pirates also loot the seized ships of any portable valuables. Police believe all these attacks are by the same gang. These pirates are well organized, apparently research their targets carefully and use competent people to board the target ships at night and quickly overwhelm the crew. These pirates are armed but disciplined and don’t fire unless they have to. The pirates know that as long as they don’t kill anyone there will not be a major media uproar and pressure for an increased police effort to hunt them down. For many people in the region pirates still have some entertainment value, especially if they are not killing anyone. The daring and success of this bunch is particularly appealing. After all the cargoes are insured and it all happens far at sea where a few daring guys are making off with millions in loot each time they grab a ship. There will eventually be a movie, probably several and maybe even a TV series plus comics and novels. 

August 21, 2014: The new interim legislature appointed by the military unanimously elected the head of the military as the new interim prime minister. 

 

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