Thailand: Generals Anxiety

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April 26, 2017: Senior military officers now running the government have been saying that some long-term military rule was required to deal with the unique problems that threaten Thailand. Most Thais see that as a ploy to gain permanent political power for the military. Meanwhile the coronation ceremony for the new king is not likely to take place until the end of 2017 and the military government has still not provided a firm date for the return of democracy.

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. So far the military controlled government has freed the monarchy from constitutional and parliamentary restrictions that were part of the 1930s deal that turned the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. The military government was changing the constitution when the old kind died and that presented a rare opportunity for the new king to gain more power for the monarchy. The generals need the backing of the king because they justified their 2014 coup by insisting they were doing it to protect the monarchy. The old king was not enthusiastic about that but had learned to stand back. In 2016 the military got their new constitution ratified in a referendum and the king approved in early April.

The king apparently tried 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 after 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. The problem is the new rules give the military permanent power and privileges that an elected government would have a difficult time (via changing the constitution) repealing. The red shirts are not pleased with all this.

Shinawatra pointed out to his followers that red shirt violence simply gave 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 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 new king believe they have solved this problem with “reforms” in the pre-coup constitution.

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 and 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. Even accepting major investments from China has not turned the economy around and many Thais fear greater Chinese influence in the economy will hurt Thailand in the long run.

The current compromise will restore elections with the king and armed forces believing they now have more power even 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 wanted (and got) 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, was 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 one post-coup 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.

April 24, 2017: The government announced that it had approved a deal to buy three Chinese submarines for $393 million each. The military government got a lot of criticism for this deal, especially from retired generals and admirals who were unafraid to point out that the military had more pressing and practical needs (like new patrol boats and helicopters for the navy) than submarines. Officially the navy defends the purchase as necessary because Thailand has to defend its Andaman Islands and all its neighbors have submarines. But Thai naval officials admit that most Thai coastal waters are too shallow for most submarine operations. Historians point out that every time there is a military government the military takes advantage of it to get major purchases made. This often involves corruption opportunities because buying stuff that is not needed is nothing new. In the 1990s a military government approved the purchase of an aircraft carrier that became infamous for never having anything to do and absorbing so much of the navy budget to maintain that the admirals gradually diverted money away from the carrier and the expensive ship spent most of its career (which has not ended get) tied up in port without any aircraft or even a full crew. In the spirit of that carrier the navy has long sought money for submarines. In mid-2016 the navy revived its plan to buy three submarines from China. The navy had first proposed this in June 2015 but withdrew the proposal a month later because of so much opposition. Most Thais oppose the navy submarine proposal and believe that the billion dollars needed to buy the three Chinese subs would be better spent on updating the rest of the navy and buying for patrol boats to improve security along the coasts. The sad shape of many Thai warships, especially the sole aircraft carrier, is a national embarrassment. Each of the three Chinese submarines costs more than the carrier did. Another factor (that can get you arrested if discussed openly in Thailand) is the Chinese frequently using bribes to expedite major weapons sales.

April 19, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat, Pattani and Songkhla provinces) there were fifteen grenade, gunfire or bomb attacks on checkpoints, homes and businesses. Altogether two people were killed and three wounded. Moslem separatists were believed responsible. It was later discovered that the two people killed were separatists transporting one of the bombs, which went off prematurely. The larger number of attacks in the south since March, and the low number of civilians hurt, indicates that the Islamic terrorists and separatists down there have adopted a more pragmatic strategy that is meant to embarrass the military (who boast of keeping the south quiet) while not antagonizing the Moslem majority the terrorists depend on for support and new recruits.

April 10, 2017: In the south the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional) the oldest (founded in 1960) separatist group in the south as well as one of the largest rejected the latest army proposals for peace in the south. The main objection was the government refusal to allow foreign observers to monitor any peace agreement. 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.

April 7, 2017: In the three southern Moslem majority provinces (Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat) there were 23 gunfire, fire or bomb attacks on infrastructure, checkpoints, homes and businesses. Some of the attacks caused local blackouts. There were no casualties in all these attacks but in the last week there were four more violent attacks that left a soldier and policeman dead and six policemen wounded.

April 6, 2017: The new king signed into law the new constitution.

April 3, 2017: In the south (Yala) over twenty Islamic terrorists surrounded a police station and fired at least 500 bullets into it (wounding twelve policemen) before fleeing.

April 1, 2017: In March separatist violence in the three southern Moslem majority provinces (Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat) left 13 dead.

 

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