Thailand: What A Fine Mess

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April 1, 2015: The government believes it has another round of peace talks organized with southern separatists. This is part of a late 2014 government effort to develop new measures to address the Islamic terrorism problem in the south. 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 some will only agree to resume peace talks 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. But there is apparently a growing number of rebel factions willing to resume talks and the government has responded. The army believes there are still about a thousand armed men in separatist and Islamic terrorist groups in the three southern provinces.

The government continues to implement new security measures in the south (special police recruited in the south as well as arming self-defense militias). 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. Some areas have even been declared free of all terrorist activity. 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 what 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 has also been helpful in keeping communications (between the Thai government and most rebel faction leaders) and that has made it possible to try and revive peace talks.

Most Thais are more concerned with the economy, which only grew .7 percent in 2014. This is expected to pick up in 2015 to 3.8 percent but with continued unrest because of the coup, corruption related problems like the UN aviation report and no peace deal in the south those growth predictions may prove unattainable. Poor economic performance is something that martial law can’t deal with.

The military government is embarrassed by a UN's International Civil Aviation Organization report earlier this year that declared Thai aviation regulators unable to maintain safety standards. This has led a growing number of East Asian nations to ban Thai commercial aircraft. While foreign airlines can pick up the slack, prices for trips to Thailand rise as a result and that cut down tourist traffic. The unrest accompanying the latest coup also hurt tourism and the economy in general. After the military took over in May 2014 the generals said they would do something about the corruption. There was some movement in that direction but the generals were more concerned with continuing protests. The military banned public meetings of more than five people in the capital, unless the military granted permission. Those arrested belong to a student group that appears to be the last one openly protesting the military rule, at least in the capital with public protests. The military is having a much more difficult time shutting down protests via the Internet. 

Another unpopular aspect of the military dictatorship is the growing number of arrests for lese-majesty (showing disrespect for the monarchy). There have been over 200 so far and some, like a recent one, resulted in a long (like 25 year) prison sentences. This case involved a Red Shirt (anti-royalist) who posted comments on Facebook deemed by military censors as critical of the monarchy. To catch more of these crimes 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 one case a 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 military dictatorship admitted that the martial law has increased unrest and senior military officials and their political allies are debating how and when to end martial law. Hardliners want to keep applying pressure on opponents, but since that is more than half the population the hardliners have less and less support even within the military. Most generals realize that these military takeovers have a short shelf life because most Thais don’t like them and this time that dislike is even stronger. That is because 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 (sister of Thaksin who was deposed in the previous coup) prime minister. There was immediately fear of year another coup, which came in 2014. There have been eleven such military governments in the last four decades and 19 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 generals realize that the Shinawatras are not the problem but more fundamental aspects of Thai culture are.

March 29, 2015: In the north (Chiang Mai Province) one soldier was killed during a clash with drug smugglers near the Burmese border.

March 25, 2015: In the south (Pattani) some fifty police raided a meeting of suspected Islamic terrorists killing four and arresting 22. The police were acting on a tip and there was an hour long gun battle and many other suspects managed to flee into the forest. Weapons (three AK-47s, a pistol and a grenade) were seized. But local civilians complained long and loud that it was a case of mistaken identity and are demanding that those arrested be released and those responsible for the deaths be punished. These sort of errors have been made before and the government tends to make it worse by conducting an investigation that is actually a cover-up. That increases support for separatist and terrorist groups and is counterproductive if the government is serious about achieving a peace deal down south. It may take weeks before this is all resolved, one way or the other.

March 8, 2015: In the south (Narathiwat) a bomb went off in front of a train soldier, killing a soldier, wounding two other soldiers and six civilians. The two men who set up the bicycle bomb were seen running away. 

 

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