Thailand: The Blight Of The Generals

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October 17, 2015: Police now believe that the August 17th Bangkok temple bombing was carried out by a people smuggling gang angry at government efforts to curb their operations. This explains the international nature of suspects arrested so far. The government is now seeking help from Turkey in identifying several suspects thought to be Turkish and now in Turkey. In September three other suspects (two men and a woman) were arrested in Malaysia. One of those was a man from Pakistan. While some of the suspects were Moslem the government could find no real links with Islamic terror groups. Eventually investigators deduced that the common thread among the suspects was international people smuggling gangs. Thailand had long been a center for such gangs but the government has cracked down hard this year because of the media attention some the gangs received for bad treatment of Moslems seeking to escape Burma. At one point police thought the culprits were Chinese Moslems (Uighur Turks) seeking revenge for Thailand returning Uighur refugees back to China. The “gangster revenge” theory seems odd so many foreigners, but for Thais such unusual behavior is rather more familiar. A lot more tips were provided because the target was a temple and most of the victims were foreign (largely Chinese) tourists. The informants were encouraged by large cash rewards offered by wealthy Thai families and that provided a flood of useful information that led tothose who organized and carried out the bombing, which no one took credit for.

The Southern Troubles

The government has persuaded most of the separatist groups in the south to resume peace talks. The southern separatist leaders (of six groups, which claim to have a total of 9,000 armed members) were reluctant to negotiate with the military government because they believed that government would soon be replaced by an elected one that may well refuse to honor a peace deal negotiated by the military. But recently many of the separatist groups changed their minds and agreed to resume negotiations. The separatists seem to realize that there won’t be a civil war over the reluctance of the military to allow elections and that the military government is not as weak as some of them believed. The negotiations are needed to try and settle problems in the south that have 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 rebel movement used the resulting chaos as an opportunity 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 6,400 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 some 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. Despite all that there are still diehard separatists down there and many are organized.

The Reluctant Generals

Meanwhile the military government is creating a lot more popular opposition by delaying elections. Currently the elections (to replace the military government with an elected one) are to take place in mid-2017. But the generals have already moved the date further into the future several times and many Thais believe this will keep happening as the generals try to retain power indefinitely. This is unprecedented in modern Thai history and very unpopular with most voters. So far this discontent is not seen as strong enough to force the military to allow elections sooner. Another reason for discontent is the inability of the military rulers to get the economy going or settle the unrest in the south. The economic problems are linked to Thai dependence on the rapidly growing Chinese economy. The Chinese are having economic problems of their own and that is hurting Thailand and other major Chinese trading partners. China is trying to be helpful, with government sponsored investments and offers of military aid. At the moment Thailand has had many of its usual military connections with the West suspended because of opposition to the military coup. China is seeking to take advantage of that and many Thai military leaders are receptive. Historically China has sometimes been a threat but rarely a serious one and Thai leaders have always been willing to make deals with the Chinese.

Thailand has also seen trade increase with Burma, which recently shed its half century old military government and held elections. That made it easier for Thailand to resume economic activity with its often troubled neighbor.

October 15, 2015: The government announced it is abandoning plans to monitor and censor Internet use. This plan was announced in August and even many supporters of the military government proved hostile to the idea. In place of Internet censorship the military has decided send thousands of soldiers to rural areas to provide useful information on farming and public health.

October 12, 2015: In the capital peace talks with southern rebels was disrupted when members of BRN (one of the largest groups) walked out in protest against government officials calling BRN separatists. BRN considers the Thai government an occupying force but the government refuses to accept that label. These attitudes are the main reason why it has been so difficult to get peace talks going at all, much less make any progress. The government openly blames disagreements among the southern separatist organizations for the difficulties in achieving a negotiated settlement to end the violence.

October 11, 2015: In the south (Phuket) over 300 young Thais besieged a police station and threw rocks and at least one firebomb at it overnight. Over a dozen other fires were set off. The violence was in response to the deaths of two young (17 and 22) Thai men yesterday who were chased by police on suspicion of drug possession. The motorcycle the men were riding on crashed, which killed the two of them and eventually enraged many other young people.  

October 10, 2015: The army has ordered another eight AW139 transport helicopters from Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland. The army received two AW139s in 2014. The military tends to buy a lot more stuff after a coup, because an elected government is much less cooperative about this sort of thing.

October 5, 2015: In the south (Narathiwat) gunmen ambushed and killed a Moslem man, apparently for cooperating with the security forces.

October 3, 2015: In the south (Yala) gunman ambushed a vehicle carrying an intelligence officer and a civilian. Both men were killed by the gunfire.

September 30, 2015: In the south (Narathiwat) gunmen ambushed and killed two policemen in a rural area.

September 21, 2015: China and Thailand announced a major Chinese investment that would build a high-speed (180 kilometers an hour) rail line from southern China (Kunming) to Bangkok. This would cut the cost of travel (currently mainly by air) for Chinese by more than half and increase the number of Chinese tourists to Thailand by at least two million a year. China would supply most of the $23 billion cost and construction is expected to be complete by 2021. This is part of a larger project to build a “Shanghai to Singapore” high speed rail line.

September 20, 2015: Pro-democracy leader (and former prime minister) Thaksin Shinawatra has called on his followers (the “red shirts”) to “play dead” for the moment and wait for the military government to allow elections. Red shirt violence, Shinawatra believes, simply gives 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 royalist and nationalist politicians and parties (yellow shirts) that lost the national elections in 2011 failed after numerous attempts to take power until 2014 when the royalist Constitutional Court ruled that the elected premier had to resign and installed a temporary premier until elections could be held. The red shirts saw all this is another illegal ploy by the royalists to thwart the will of the people and retained power because red shirt politicians still control a majority of the seats in parliament and have the right to appoint a temporary prime minister. Red shirts also point out that Constitutional Court first declared the February 2nd elections (which the elected prime minister called to show that she still had majority support) invalid because some voting places were blocked by mobs of yellow shirt protestors. It’s generally agreed that this court decision was absurd and the populists demand that the recently deposed populist prime minister be reinstated or that new elections be held as soon as possible. While the elected prime minister was accused of corruption, her supporters point out that these legal moves by the royalists are dishonest and just another form of corruption. The army saw a deadlock and stepped in.

Most Thais are fed up with the coups. There have been twelve of them in the last 80 years (since a constitutional monarchy replaced the centuries old absolute monarchy). The royals have learned to keep their heads down, even though the military has always been staunchly royalist. Where the army may run into problems is with their vaguely defined plans to enact “reforms” and amend the constitution. Unless the army does the impossible, and shuts down access to social media sites like Facebook, popular resistance to whatever the proposed reforms are will have an Internet platform on which to spread and grow. Troops have orders to arrest anyone who appears to be leading resistance to the coup, but the number of anti-coup is so widespread that trying to decapitate the opposition by taking most leaders out of action will not work. The opposition has plenty of competent replacements for lost leaders.

Pro-democracy Thais have also become more adept in opposing the coup, making greater use of social media even as the army makes very deliberate efforts to control that media. But as China has discovered, even when you employ an enormous Internet censorship bureaucracy and some very effective technology, the unwelcome (by the government) messages still get through. Moreover sites like Facebook are tremendously popular in Thailand, by royalists and populists alike. Thus the army was forced to come out and say it would never shut down Facebook access in Thailand. Pro-democracy groups are organizing flash mobs and generally keeping their efforts in front of Thais and especially foreign media. While the red shirts have lots of popular support, most Thais are more interested in economic issues and as long as the army deals with this there will not be a lot of widespread opposition to the generals. The economic problems cannot be ignored. The GDP contracted 2.1 percent in the first three months of 2014 and that contraction and slow growth continues. Unemployment is still low (1-2 percent) but income is declining as are opportunities for getting better jobs. Most Thais remember that in all the post-World War II coups (1951, 1957, 1958, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1991, 2006) the economy improved after the army took over. So the army is paying attention to economic problems and is not doing so well at it.

 

 

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