As is the custom in Thailand, compromise is in the works between the new king, the military government and the democratic majority. Once the new king took the throne at the end of 2016 he apparently made a deal with the military government that would, in theory, benefit both of them in the long run. First, the king wants to be freed from constitutional and parliamentary restrictions that were part of the 1930s deal that turned the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. The military government is in the process of changing the constitution and that presents a rare opportunity to give the king more power. The generals need the backing of the king because they justified their 2014 coup by insisting they were doing it to protect the monarchy. Last year the military got their new constitution approved in a referendum and the king must approve it by May and apparently will do so as long as his requests are agreed to.
Meanwhile the king is apparently also trying to negotiate a peace deal with the pro-democracy groups which have demonstrated that they still have the majority of voters with them. In late 2015 pro-democracy leader (and former prime minister) Thaksin Shinawatra called on his followers (the “red shirts”) to “play dead” for the moment and wait for the military government to allow elections. The military has agreed to elections in 2018 but only if some fundamental changes were made in the constitution. The king’s representatives have apparently been seeking a compromise deal that would allow Thaksin Shinawatra and other exiled democracy leaders to come home and abide by the new rules.
Back in 2015 Shinawatra pointed out that red shirt violence 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 pointed out that the Constitutional Court first declared the February 2014 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 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 and took power via yet another coup.
The king and the generals recognize that 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. The army and the king now seek to change this deadlock with “reforms” in the existing constitution. Since 2014 the troops have been ordered to arrest anyone who appeared to be leading resistance to the coup, but the anti-coup sentiments were so widespread that trying to decapitate the opposition by taking most leaders out of action did not work. The opposition had plenty of competent replacements for lost leaders and those leaders did not call for a civil war.
Pro-democracy Thais have also became more adept at dealing with coups, especially since the Internet and social media proved immune to army 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 organized flash mobs and similar actions to remind the generals and the foreign media that this crises was not over. While the red shirts have lots of popular support, most Thais are more interested in economic issues and the army has not been able to deal with that because of widespread opposition to military rule in Thailand and abroad. 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 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.
The new 2017 compromise will restore elections with the king and armed forces believing they now have more power when the country is run by an elected government. The democrats note that long-term the kings and dictators lose. Most royalists recognize that if the king becomes too unpopular the monarchy could be abolished, as it already has throughout the region. Actions have consequences.
The new king is not like his father, who was the first king to rule as part of a constitutional monarchy for any length of time and he did it well. The new king wants more power so he can do things his way, the old way. While his late father took power at the age of 18 his son does so at age 64 and is, as long feared, turning out to be the opposite of his beloved and much respected predecessor. If there was one thing most Thais could agree on was the popularity of their late king. The former crown prince is another matter. By tradition and law the Thai monarch generally stays out of politics and everyone feels that if things get really bad the king will step in temporarily to break deadlocks and get things moving. That rarely happened because the previous king was more about popularity and consensus than personal political power. That image was 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’s family that backed democracy in the 1930s (to avoid a civil war) and Thais were expecting more of the same to avoid another one. But that beloved king Bhumibol is dead and his successor has much less moral authority and far lower expectations. The new king wants to make it possible for the monarchy to rule directly in times of an emergency that can be defined and instigated by the monarchy. This return to old-school monarchy is not very popular outside the royal family.
The royal family, the Chakaris, were founded by a general who seized the throne in 1782 partly to bring peace in a time of great chaos. Since then the Chakaris have survived by avoiding stupid mistakes. The current military government is creating more problems than it is solving and Thais fear the new king will be the opposite of his father and end up being one of the “bad kings” and perhaps even the 10th and last king of the Chakari dynasty. This attitude is nothing new as in 2015 the third wife (now ex-wife) of the new king and her family were exposed as quite corrupt and quickly expelled from the royal circle. The uncle of third the wife had been arrested along with many police officials who were involved in the many corrupt practices the family of the wife were responsible for.
The military government is aware of how unpopular their rule is and are seeking ways to obtain more power without being a military government. Changing the constitution is a start and the military government is depending on China to help them out. It was not surprising that the military government developed close ties with China, which is the regional expert in keeping an unpopular dictatorship in power. In late 2016 the government admitted that they maintain a secret blacklist of individuals and groups who are to be taken into custody if they try to enter Thailand and, if China requests, sent back to China (even if the blacklisted travelers are not citizens of China). The Thai military government also publically backs Chinese claims to the South China Sea. Most Thais oppose Chinese territorial claims and are uncomfortable about being this cooperative with their overbearing neighbor. China is now the third largest foreign investor in Thailand and is encouraging Chinese firms seeking overseas locations for production facilities to pay special attention to Thailand (which is not as cheap as nearby Vietnam, Burma or Cambodia but is now officially recognized inside China as more “Chinese friendly.”) The military government needs the Chinese investments because Thailand is no longer the most vibrant economy in the region. Thais notice that and want a return to higher GDP growth, lower inflation and less unemployment. Everyone notices that a recent opinion poll found that nearly half (46.7 percent) the population will tolerate corruption as long as they get a fair share.
The military also wants a larger share of the budget (from the current 1.4 percent of GDP to two percent by 2020) to finance a ten year plan to update or replace much of the aging equipment and weapons the military has. Currently the military is inclined to buy from China which offers good value and the implied promise of future assistance for the Thai military.
March 13, 2017: The government revealed that a joint operations with Malaysia had led to the January 19th arrest of the Laotian leader of a major drug cartel (based in Laos) and several of his key associates. Captured documents and interrogations of those arrested revealed details of how this gang moved major quantities of yaba ("crazy drug") methamphetamine pills into Thailand where some was sold locally but most was moved into Malaysia using Moslem smugglers who have long moved illegal goods back and forth across the Malaysian border. Production of yaba has soared since 2010 and most of it is smuggled out of Burma via Thailand. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields and the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. A lot of the separatist and Islamic terrorist violence in the south was known to have been financed or carried out by gangs down there and the recent arrests of Laotian gangsters revealed the extent to which yaba profits were sustaining the southern violence.
March 4, 2017: In the south (Yala province) gunmen attacked a local leader and killed him.
March 3, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat province) gunmen attacked two local defense volunteers, killing one and wounding the other.
March 2, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat province) gunmen ambushed a Buddhist family and killed four of them. The car was taking some children to school. Elsewhere in the south (Pattani province) three soldiers were killed while at a crowded marketplace. The gunfire also wounded a nearby civilian and the seven armed men involved fled.
February 28, 2017: The government announced that it had reached agreement with separatists to establish five “safety zones” in the south where civilians would be free from separatist violence. But during the first week of March there were numerous attacks in the south, some of them in the safety zones. It turned out that the separatist factions most opposed to this agreement were also among the ones most responsible for the violence. This has always been a problem in the south and has proved to be a major obstacle to achieving a negotiated peace down there. Some separatist leaders insist that it is a matter of perception because many of the attacks the government attributes to separatist violence are actually personal disputes. That is true in some cases, but not in most. Another problem is that many separatists do not believe a deal made with military government will be approved by an elected government while other factions believe they can get the best terms from an elected government.
In the south (Songkhla province, just north of the three Moslem provinces and also bordering Malaysia) police found the bodies of a local couple who had been killed earlier in the day while their pickup truck was being stolen. Later in the day he truck was found parked near a border patrol station with a bomb concealed in the back. The bomb was disabled.