Thailand: The Generals Versus The Hunger Games

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December 5, 2014: The military government has managed to suppress street demonstrations by pro-democracy groups but still has to deal with other forms of public protest. These have taken the form of groups of people sitting in public reading “1984” (since banned) or eating sandwiches (rare in a country where rice is the main carbohydrate). Easting sandwiches outdoors was banned but the government has been less successful in banning the three finger salute (as featured as a sign of protest against a military dictatorship in the Hunger Games books and movies). The latest of the Hunger Games movies (Mockingjay) opened in Thailand during late November and was quickly shut down. But that did not stop small groups of demonstrators from giving the three finger salute (and often get arrested). When these mini-demonstrations take place all over the capital, and the country, they are captured by cell phone cameras and sent to the Internet to show the world that the real resistance in Thailand is as persistent as it was in the fictional world of the Hunger Games.  The Thai generals are not amused.

The government has some stubborn economic problems as well. GDP growth is stalled and the reason is the political unrest and delays in building or refurbishing infrastructure. In short, Thailand has become a less attractive place for foreign (and even local) investors. That problem will not be eliminated unless the current political strife is settled. That’s one reason the military government has promised elections in late 2015. The question is, will the generals abide by the will of the people. In the last decade they have not and that is what also hurts foreign investment.

China is pressuring the government to send them several dozen Uighurs (Turkic people living in northwest China) captured during a raid on a smugglers camp earlier in the year. People smugglers use Thailand as a way station for getting people (for a large fee) out of the region and to more distant and hospitable destinations (preferably Europe or North America.) China says the Uighurs it is after are criminals (Islamic terrorists). The Thai government refused to act promptly and then Turkey offered to take the Uighurs, who face punishment back in China.

Over the last month the government attempted to implement 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, but that appears to be unlikely. That’s because the factions that comprise the southern rebels are not united and will only agree to resume unless if the army and special police cease all counter-terrorism operations. The government refuses to even consider this and insists that talks will not resume until all terrorist attacks cease. The rebels refuse to consider that either. Meanwhile an additional 2,000 police have been authorized for the three Moslem provinces in the south with half the new police recruited from those three provinces. The government also 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 is forming a new paramilitary ranger regiment which will be ready for service in 2016. These rangers will be stationed in the three Moslem provinces. All 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 terrorist leaders are often based there. The Malaysian government is willing to act on specific information they receive from Thailand (and make an arrest). The Malaysian government, however, has been unable to persuade the rebels to revive peace talks. The best the Malaysians could do was confirm that the rebel groups were not willing to resume negotiations.

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 Moslems 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 Peninsula 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 to the usual 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.

December 4, 2014: In the south three people were killed and one wounded in three shooting incidents. Some of these may have not been related to Islamic terrorism but rather to personal conflicts. All the victims were government supporters.

The military government has a new and most embarrassing problem. Their anti-corruption campaign has snagged the wife of the crown prince (the heir to the thrown now held by a beloved 86 year old king). The crown prince now wants to divorce his wife (his third, married in 2001) and strip the wife and her family of all the benefits obtained from their connection (by marriage) to the royal family. The uncle of the wife has been arrested as have many police officials who were involved in the many corrupt practices the family of the wife were responsible for. The military coup had the blessing of the royal family, which also backed the increased anti-corruption efforts. The crown prince is the only male heir and has long been criticized for his unroyal behavior and multiple marriages. His current wife (and her family) was suspect from the beginning. Royalists are nervous about the future of the monarchy if the crown prince becomes king, but making the legal changes necessary to allow his more popular sister to become the next monarch are also daunting.

December 3, 2014: In the south a court has sentenced five Moslem men to death for ambushing and killing four soldiers in 2012.

November 14, 2014: In the south (Pattani province) trapped six Islamic terrorists in a house and after a gun battle killed two and captured five of them.

In the capital the host of a TV interview show was forced off the air by the military dictatorship for asking people what they through about the military government. This sort of thing had been banned in all media.

November 11, 2014: The government has refused to get involved with the illegal migration of Rohingya Moslems from Burma and Bangladesh. This has brought international pressure on Thailand because thousands of Rohingya have gone missing after getting on boats to be taken south. People smugglers use boats to move these people south, often through Thai waters. When the coast guard, navy or police detect these boats they are forced to leave Thai waters. These people pay smugglers to take them to Malaysia, Thailand, India or more distant points (like Indonesia). Rohingya activists claim that nearly 20,000 people have left in the last two months, 75 percent of them from Burma. But several thousand appear to have disappeared. Rohingya also accuse security forces in Burma and Thailand of working with the smugglers, usually in the form of taking bribes to allow the smuggler boats to pass without interference. Some Rohingya say the missing Rohingya refugees were murdered by security forces who sank their boats. Others point out that smugglers tend to use poorly maintained boats, which are often overloaded and this leads to boats sinking, especially in bad weather or being stranded when engines fail. Over 100,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma by sea since the anti-Moslem violence began there in 2012. Thailand denies all the charges and refuses to allow foreign investigators into the country.

 

 

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