Thailand: Saving The Monarchy From Itself


November 14, 2015: Since September the pro-democracy populists (the “red shirts”) have largely ceased demonstrations. The populists are apparently going to wait for the military government to allow elections which is what Thai military governments all eventually do. Red shirts believe any violence on their part would simply give 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 used their control of the courts and the military to outlaw the elected government after which the army stepped in to “keep the peace”. 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 during the coups, even though the military has always been staunchly royalist. Where the army may run into problems this time 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 activists 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 and would win another election.

What scares the royalists and the military the most is the fate of the monarchy. The popular king is 87 and his heir (the crown prince) is a widely despised playboy who, it is feared, would discredit the monarchy and the power of the monarchists if he became king. There is not much (legally) can be done about the crown prince but the monarchists are quietly trying to eliminate the more visible (and embarrassing) corrupt monarchists. Some of these jailed monarchists have mysteriously died. Murder is suspected, to prevent the jailed men from going public with what they know of the bad behavior among the officially anti-corruption monarchists.

Meanwhile pro-democracy Thais have very visibly 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, with royalists and populists alike. Thus the army was forced to come out and say it would never shut down Facebook access in Thailand. 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. Most of the poverty is out in the countryside and the populist governments shifted a lot of government spending to those rural areas. After the coup the military government shifted investment back to urban areas, especially the capital, where most of the coup supporters live. This was not a popular move with the majority of Thais.

The Plodding Peace Process

In the south the majority of people (76 percent) continue to believe the peace negotiations will succeed even though they have been stalled for over a year. The government has persuaded most of the separatist groups in the south to resume peace talks but no date has been set. 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 in mid-2015 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 and sometimes violence military responses. Since then there have been more than 6,400 killed down there along with over 10,000 wounded. There have been over 15,000 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.

Illegal Migrants Blocked

The May 2015 Thai crackdown on gangsters trying to smuggle Burmese Moslems through Thailand to Malaysia has forced the smugglers to seek another route that bypasses Thailand. For a long time Thailand refused to get involved with halting the illegal migration of Rohingya Moslems from Burma and Bangladesh via Thailand. This brought international pressure on Thailand to help stop the smuggling. Thousands of Rohingya had gone missing after getting on boats to be taken south. People smugglers initially used boats and trucks to move these people south, often overland through Thailand or via Thai coastal waters. When the coast guard, navy or police detect these smugglers they were forced to leave Thai waters if in boats. If caught on land smugglers and the illegal migrants were all arrested. These migrants paid smugglers to take them to Malaysia, Thailand, India or more distant points (like Indonesia). This smuggling has become big business. It is believed that that up to 10,000 people a month were leaving with 75 percent coming from Burma. Security forces in Burma and Thailand were accused of working with the smugglers, usually in the form of taking bribes to allow the smuggler boats and trucks to pass without interference. Security forces were accused of sinking some boats because the smugglers refused to leave. Others pointed 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. Rohingya who survived the trip reported that some smuggler gangs would use Thai transit camps to try and extort more cash from the families of some refugees and would torture or kill some refugees while doing this. Some of the bodies found in these camps showed signs of torture and other abuse. Most of the deaths were from disease or exhaustion. Because of international pressure the Thai government also cracked down on corrupt security personnel taking bribes from or otherwise cooperating with the smugglers. This enabled the gangs to make a lot of money moving these illegal migrants but that has been largely halted since Thailand shut down access. Over 200,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma by sea since the anti-Moslem violence began there in 2012. At least 25,000 are believed to have gone south in the first three months of 2015 and that level of activity continued until May when the Thai crackdown took effect. Suddenly a lot fewer (soon about 80 percent fewer) Rohingya refugees were showing up at in Malaysia or Indonesia. All the countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal were now watching for boats engaged in people smuggling and that pretty much ruled out using large vessels anymore. Now smugglers could only move a few people at a time on smaller vessels that could avoid or pass inspection. The drove the price of using people smugglers way up, to the point where most Rohingya could not afford it.

Peace With Malaysia

The government has largely settled a long standing (since the 1960s) border dispute with neighboring Malaysia. The 648 kilometer border is largely in thinly populated forest and surveyors have been working since 1973 to precisely measure and mark the border. There is still a dispute over an 8.5 kilometer stretch of border but that is being spun off as a separate negotiation while a treaty to affirm the rest of the border is signed.

November 13, 2015: In the south (Narathiwat  province) an Islamic terrorist bomb wounded two soldiers.

November 12, 2015: In the south (Pattani province) Islamic terrorists bombed a checkpoint killing four local defense volunteers.

November 2, 2015: In the south (Yala province) a roadside bomb was found and disabled

November 1, 2015: In the south (Pattani province) Islamic terrorists killed a Moslem who was once a religious teacher.

October 29, 2015: In the south (Yala province) four bombs went off destroying electric transmission lines.

October 27, 2015: In the south (Pattani province) Islamic terrorists killed a court guard who was on his way to work.

October 20, 2015: In the south (Narathiwat  province) an Islamic terrorist bomb killed a local defense volunteer.  

October 19, 2015: In the south (Pattani province) an Islamic terrorist roadside bomb killed two soldiers and wounded five others. Another bomb, three kilometers down the road, also exploded but caused no casualties. The second bomb was meant for troops rushing to the scene of the first explosion but was detonated at the wrong time.





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