Thailand: Bad History Repeats Itself

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August 13, 2016: The military effort to coerce enough Thai voters into approving the August 7 referendum on a new constitution succeeded. While the military government believes this is a victory it only guarantees another decade of political unrest. There is much evidence that the vote was rigged, especially since the vote tally was 61 percent in favor of the pro-military constitution while opinion polls just before the vote indicated 48 percent approval. Many opponents of the military government refused to vote which was a factor in only 59 percent eligible voters participating.

The new constitution reverses decades of progress in replacing medieval privilege with democratic methods. The military will continue trying to coerce opponents to keep quiet. Even before the referendum vote royalist and nationalist politicians who backed the 2011 coup were openly calling on the generals to back off. The pro-military parties (yellow shirts) that lost the national elections in 2011 used their continued control of the courts and the military to outlaw the elected government (“red shirts”) after which the army stepped in to “keep the peace”. This was not a unique event in Thai history but 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 coups slow down the spread of democracy but does not stop it. It’s a nasty cycle that will apparently continue.

Golden Triangle Tribulations

Burma and Thailand have agreed to cooperate and coordinate increased efforts to block drug smuggling coming out of the “Golden Triangle.” This is the ancient poppy growing area where the borders of China, Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. This area still produces most of the illegal drugs in East Asia. Northern Burma (Kachin province) is where most of the illegal drug production takes place. The drug production requires access to large quantities of industrial chemicals. The source is usually China or India and the pressure is on both countries to halt these questionable exports. Heroin production requires locally grown poppy plants treated with special chemicals. The local raw material has grown in northern Burma for thousands of years. Burma is currently the most prolific portion of the Golden Triangle and that keeps all manner of gangster, rebel and ethnic warlords in business. In 2015 over 800 tons of opium (the raw material for heroin) were produced in the triangle, over 90 percent of it in Burma, which is also where most of the opium is processed into heroin (ten tons of opium yields one ton of heroin). Global production of opium is currently about 7,000 tons. Back in the early 1980s 2,000 tons of opium were produced a year, nearly all of it for legitimate medicinal products. There was some illegal production in the Golden Triangle but only a fraction of what it is now. Chinese communists shut down opium production in China during the late 1940s. Some Chinese producers moved to Burma, Laos and Thailand. The Thais soon shut it down and Laos was never a big producer. Burma, run by a military dictatorship, needed the money, and didn't crack down until the 1990s, in large part to destroy the military power of ethnic Chinese Burmese drug warlords who grew strong off their heroin profits. Heroin production then picked up in Pakistan, where it was soon driven across the border to Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban heavily taxed drug production in the late 1990s and even halted production for one year (2000) because of oversupply and falling prices. Opium has always been all about money. By 2010 military pressure on the Afghan drug gangs allowed the Golden Triangle, especially Burma, to regain more of the world heroin market. Afghanistan is still the leader, but Burma has over ten percent of the market and is gaining as is Colombia (with a much lower share). But everyone in the Golden Triangle knows that the opium industry has been suppressed many times in the past, it just takes the cooperation of the major governments up there to make it happen again. For decades Burma usually did not cooperate but the new Burmese government says it will. That might also mean a shutdown of methamphetamine production as well. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it is smuggled out via Thailand. Since 2010 production of yaba tablets has soared. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields and the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. But only as long as they can get the industrial chemicals required to make meth. The tribal rebels, especially ethnic Chinese tribes (like the Wa) use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters, and run their rebel organizations. Recently India has agreed to shut down the illegal chemical smuggling. China is also trying to shut down the corruption that enables drug gangs to bribe chemical shipments past border security. Burma know it is the center of all this illicit drug activity and has been more willing to cooperate with neighbors to curb the problem.

August 12, 2016: In the last two days eleven small bombs were set off in the south. Not in the three southernmost provinces (the Moslem majority ones) but in the provinces with a lot of tourist attractions. Normally Moslem terrorists leave the tourist areas alone. Four people died and 34 were wounded, including ten European tourists because these new attacks. Police suspect this was the work of criminal gangs showing their displeasure at government interference. Tourism is a favorite target for gangsters because most targets are not well guarded and accounts for about ten percent of GDP and very sensitive to safety issues.

A year ago (August 17 2015) the bombing of a Hindu shrine (and tourist attraction) in Bangkok was also attributed to criminal gangs angry at a crackdown on their profitable people smuggling operations. The temple attack was the worst in Thai history leaving twenty people dead, eight of them foreign tourists. Over a hundred people were wounded. Islamic terrorists did not claim credit for this one. This attack does not appear to be the work of any of the usual suspects. The government admitted that those behind the bombing appeared intent on making the government look bad as well as hurting the economy (by scaring tourists away). The 2015 attack cut tourist business in Thailand by about ten percent for the rest of 2015,

August 7, 2016: In the south (Pattani province) a roadside bomb was used against a convoy carrying referendum ballot boxes to voting places. A civilian voting official was killed and two policemen wounded.

August 6, 2016: The government announced that it will withdraw at least ten percent of the 60,000 soldiers and police in the three Moslem provinces by the end of the year and replace them with locally recruited paramilitary police. This is the result of declining separatist and Islamic terrorist violence down there. The separatists still have a lot of popular support among the Moslem majority in those three provinces but support and tolerance for terrorist violence has declined and with that the perpetrators of the violence found it much more difficult to operate. At the same time the three Moslem provinces are also the most hostile to the military government.

August 2, 2016: In the south (Songkhla province, just north of the three Moslem provinces and also bordering Malaysia) police found 60 illegal migrants (mostly from Bangladesh and Burma) who had been abandoned by people smugglers in a remote house near the Malaysian border. There was a similar incident nearby in early 2015 when police found 117 illegal migrants mostly from Bangladesh and Burma. When questioned they said smugglers dropped them off on the Thai coast further north and for two weeks they walked south and avoiding police. Despite vigorous efforts to curb this sort of thing some people smuggling continues via land routes into Malaysia. Although the security forces now monitor known smuggling routes (trails or dirt roads crossing the border in forested but thinly populated areas) there are so many of these routes that there are always some that smugglers can still get small groups of people across on. Despite this, there is now a lot less people smuggling and in large part because the numerous Thai smuggling gangs got the message in 2015; anything but people is tolerable and the pressure will ease off once the people smuggling stops. The gangs apparently decided to do what was best for business. All this began in early 2015 when the security forces carried out a major crackdown on gangsters smuggling Burmese Moslems (and others) through Thailand to Malaysia. During 2015 some 2,300 illegal migrants were arrested (and many more turned back) in Thailand along with over a hundred of the smugglers. This forced the smugglers to seek another route. By early 2016 it appeared that the people smugglers had largely shut down the people smuggling operation because far fewer people were disappearing from refugee camps in Burma.

July 25, 2016: In the south (Narathiwat province) a roadside bomb went off but caused no injuries. It was apparently an attempt to attack a nearby group of soldiers protecting teachers from Islamic terrorist attacks. Coincidentally the commander of the army was visiting nearby.

Elsewhere in the south (Yala province) a local defense volunteer was killed and a village chief wounded when they were ambushed by an unidentified gunman.

 

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