Thailand: It is Quiet Out There, Too Quiet

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February 6, 2015: In the south the religious and ethnic resentment of the Moslem minority concentrated there continues to simmer. The violence gradually declines but does not stop. Some of the rebel groups have agreed to talk about resuming peace negotiations. This is progress after nothing happening for a year. At the same time the various religious, separatist and gangster factions involved in the decade of violence are not agreed on what exactly the government has to do to placate them all and eliminate the unrest.

Up north the unrest is less violence but more widespread. With two military coups since 2006 there is a lot of political unrest developing. To defend itself the military is trying to goad the populist democratic opposition into violent demonstrations that would justify more extensive arrests of populist leaders. The goading employs two tactics. One is a growing number of arrests for lese-majesty (showing disrespect for the monarchy). To aid in this the generals are seeking to implement a system that would detect what web pages Thais are visiting and identify those visiting pages that are hostile to the military or the king. Then the police could go after the more frequent visitors to see who is too hostile to the monarchy. Thais have long tolerated very strict laws against “lese majesty”  but 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. Populist posters on the Internet are most vulnerable to arrest as all sorts of things are said there. In the last week one man was arrested for suggesting the king had picked a successor (no official announcement on a successor has been made yet) and others were arrested on vague charges of trying to overthrow the monarchy. All this is absurd because if there is one thing most Thais can agree on is the popularity of the king. The monarch generally stays out of politics and everyone feels that if things get really bad the king will step in. Perhaps, but the king has more popularity than political power and is used as a symbol by anti-populist traditionalists and as a source of ultimate salvation by pro-democracy groups. After all, it was the king who established democracy in the 1930s (to avoid a civil war) and Thais are expecting more of the same to avoid another one.

The other tactic to get some violent response out of the populists is to prosecute the last two prime ministers (Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra) for corruption. The two are brother and sister and represent a family that is seen as the main supporter of populist groups. Thaksin Shinawatra made his fortune in the booming new economy (telecommunications) of the last few decades and then entered politics and became a prime minister in 2001. A military coup removed him in 2006 and he has been in exile since 2008 because of his criticism of the military government that replaced him. The generals do not like Thaksin Shinawatra and have staged two coups (2006 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, especially since the new parliament was dominated by populists and they made Yingluck Shinawatra prime minister. There was immediately fear of year another coup. There had been ten such military governments in the last four decades and 18 coups or attempts since 1932 (plus seven attempts that failed). 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 in early 2014 there was yet another military takeover “for the good of the country.” Now the generals are trying to destroy the Shinawatra clan, which has been a populist power in the country for over half a century. It is the relentless populism that the royalists are really up against and you can’t eliminate populism with guns and jails.

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. 

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 were promised but never arrived.  Even the royal family fell victim to the latest anti-corruption effort, with the wife (now ex-wife) of the crown prince and her family exposed as quite corrupt and quickly expelled from the royal circle.

While the United States has stepped back from the turmoil in Thailand, China has seen the situation as an opportunity. China makes itself useful to Thailand in many and sometimes unexpected ways. A recent example is the rapid increase in the number of Chinese tourists over the last year. This came just in time to make up for the sharp decline in the number of Russian tourists (unable to travel because it became twice as expensive to buy dollars with Russian currency because of sanctions and lower oil prices). All this is a big deal in Thailand where tourism normally amounts to ten percent of GDP (but was down a bit in 2014 because of the May coup and general unrest.) But in the last year Russian tourists arriving in Thailand declined 30 percent while Chinese arrivals nearly doubled. Thus Chinese are now 19 percent of the tourists versus seven percent Russian. This was helped along by special programs (discounts, Chinese language tour guides and resort staff) for Chinese tourists (from Taiwan and Singapore as well as China). Meanwhile China is growing as a trading partner, especially by providing more high-end (and often high-tech) goods formerly obtained from Japan or the West.

February 3, 2015: In the south police announced $400,000 in rewards for the killing or capture of four men accused of leading or carrying out separatist violence in the south.

February 1, 2015: In the capital two small bombs went off hear a popular mall. One person was wounded but the bombs were not designed to kill, just to cause panic (which they did). This was the first such violence in the capital since the military coup in May 2014. Populists accused the government of setting off these bombs to justify more arrests of populists.

January 31, 2015: In the south (Yala) two men were shot dead as they walked towards a forest. This was believed to be related to the separatist violence, but it’s not always clear if that is the case. Often the violence is the result of a feud or some criminal operation (extortion is popular down south). An investigation will often reveal the truth, but not always.

January 11, 2015:  In the non-Moslem south (Nakhon Si Thammarat province) police caught five pickup trucks trying to smuggle 98 Burmese Moslems through Thailand to Malaysia. The government has long 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 and trucks to move these people south, often through Thailand overland or Thai waters. When the coast guard, navy or police detect these smugglers they are forced to leave Thai waters if in boats. If caught on land smugglers and the illegal migrants are all arrested. These migrants pay smugglers to take them to Malaysia, Thailand, India or more distant points (like Indonesia). Rohingya activists claim that up to 10,000 people a month are leaving with 75 percent coming from Burma. But thousands appear to have just 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 and trucks 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 150,000 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. In this latest case one of the female refugees died from hunger and exhaustion shortly after being arrested and removed from a crowded pickup truck. These refugees had been treated poorly by the smugglers and this sort of thing is common. Because of international pressure the government has cracked down on corrupt security personnel taking bribes from or otherwise cooperating with the smugglers.

January 9, 2015: In the south (Pattani province) three Islamic terrorists were cornered and killed. Troops acted on a tip and the gunmen refused to surrender even after a 12 hour siege of the house they took refuge in.

January 6, 2015: in the south (Narathiwat province) two Islamic terrorists were killed and a soldier wounded in a clash at a checkpoint.

January 5, 2015: Police arrested an Indian terrorists (Gurmeet Singh) who had been living in a southern resort area (Pattaya) for at least four months. Singh escaped from jail while being tried for a 1995 assassination. He was convicted and has been sought ever since.  

 

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