Thailand: The Future Does Not Look Bright

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May 26, 2017: The prime minister of the military government has openly discussed the possibility that political violence might be a possible excuse to delay elections indefinitely. Many Thais see evidence that the generals mean to turn the country into another Burma, where a military government lasted nearly half a century. Compared to the last military governments this one is concentrating on permanently increasing military power in future governments, even democratic ones. Thus the increased media censorship would make it easier to get pro-military people elected to parliament in free elections. These are now supposed to happen by the end of 2018. The military would prefer that the opposition got really violent but it is clear (and spoken of quite openly) that the opposition leaders have convinced their followers to just let the military government self-destruct. Many royalists and military leaders fear that is a real possibility.

The generals apparently see the aftermath of the 2006 coup as a mistake and are seeking to avoid angry voters from coming after them in the future. Thus while after the 2006 coup the military controlled only 28 percent of the seats in parliament, after the latest (2014) coup the military controls 57 percent of the seats. This time around there are more active or retired officers in the cabinet (a third now compared to 11 percent after 2006). The military is constantly seeking senior officers willing to take key civilian jobs in the civil service and hold them long-term. The military is seeking stronger diplomatic and military connections with China and relying on China for advice on how to impose media censorship on a market economy. The military appears to believe they are succeeding despite popular opinion to the contrary.

Since late 2016 more military officers, especially those running the government have been discussing how some long-term military rule might be the only solution for the unique problems that threaten Thailand. Most Thais see repeated coups as the most serious “unique problem” and this suggestion that gaining permanent political power for the military is a possibility only if the current military proves they can more effectively run the country. So far they are not.

Another worrisome aspect of this is that there is now (since the end of 2016) a new king who is willing, unlike his predecessor, to go along with a permanent military government. Critics point out that the former king was so popular and lasted so long because he encouraged democracy. The new king is another matter and the military government does not help matters by going to unprecedented lengths to suppress criticism of the new king. The latest effort is a proposal to go after those who view Internet material critical of the king. This effort was prompted by the growing number of Thai Internet critics fleeing the country (to avoid arrest) and continuing to use social media (especially Facebook and YouTube) to share items critical of the new king and the military government. The military realizes that while the creators of this offending Internet material are beyond their reach most of those who view (or post comments on) this stuff are inside Thailand and available for arrest and punishment. While the major social network outlets have cooperated in removing what the military government declares “illegal” material there are many other ways such offending content can be distributed via the Internet. The military recently revealed that they had obtained (apparently with Chinese help) the software and technical assistance required to implement identifying those Internet users in Thailand who are viewing the illegal material. This move is not surprising to Thais and if implemented will not make the military government any more popular nor will it keep the offending material from circulating. The Chinese censors don’t like to dwell on that fact.

By 2016 there were a growing number of arrests for lese-majesty (showing disrespect for the monarchy). This increased in late 2016 when it became clear that the unpopular crown prince would be the new king. For nearly half a century the crown prince has been misbehaving and since the 1990s, with the arrival of cheaper digital photography and phone cameras, a lot more embarrassing photos and videos of the crown prince were created. Now a lot of these are appearing on the Internet and that makes the new king, and his military backers, look bad. It was probably for that reason that some critics of the military government were arrested on vague charges of trying to overthrow the monarchy. All this was absurd because if there was one thing most Thais could agree on was the popularity of the kings’ long-ruling father. The crown prince (and current king) is another matter. The Thai monarch generally stays out of politics and everyone feels that if things get really bad the king will step in. That rarely happened because the king has more popularity than political power and was used as a symbol by anti-populist traditionalists and as a source of ultimate salvation by pro-democracy groups. After all, it was a king who established 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 died in October 2016 and his successor has much less moral authority.

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 continued. 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 military makes much of the fact that GDP growth so far in 2017 is the highest it has been the highest in four years. Most Thais realize that GDP growth was much higher before the latest coup in 2014 and that the future does not look bright.

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 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. So despite the generals insisting they took over in 2006 and 2014 to reduce corruption and protect the monarchy they are seen as seeking permanent rule to protect their own financial and political futures and no one else’s’.

No Peace In The South

A negotiated end to the southern violence also eludes the military government. 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. There is less disagreement in the south because although the violence has been underway since 2004, southern popular support for the violence, and increased government economic and military responses, resulted in the violence peaking in 2009 and declining ever since. In 2007 over 80 people a month were dying from the southern violence but by 2014 that was less than 20 a month and continuing to decline.

May 23, 2017: In the south (Yala province) two local defense volunteers were killed and two wounded when half a dozen of them were ambushed by Islamic terrorists using a bomb and gunfire. The attackers fled after a brief gun battle.

May 22, 2017: In the capital a bomb went off in a military hospital, wounding 24. No one took credit but since this is the third anniversary of the latest military takeover of the government, the opposition (to military rule) was blamed. Then again, the military has often been accused of setting off non-lethal bombs and blaming it on someone else. This belief was strengthened by the fact that most of the security cameras in this military run facility were not working before the bomb went off.

In the south (Yala province) four soldiers were killed when a bomb went off in the provincial capital.

May 21, 2017: In the capital a bomb went off near the royal palace (in front of the National Theater). It was night so few people were around and two passing civilians were slightly wounded. This type of attack is favored by the military, which blames this sort of thing on their opponents or Islamic terrorists depending on which way the political winds are blowing.

May 14, 2017: The navy signed two agreements with their counterparts in Singapore and the Philippines. One deal is to provide more extensive support for each other’s warships when they visit each other’s ports. The other agreement is to share information each maintains on civilian shipping in the area.

In the north (Chiang Mai province), for the second time this year, there was a major clash between Burmese drug smugglers and soldiers patrolling near the Burma border. This time soldiers on patrol at night two kilometers from the border encountered a group of at least fifteen armed men apparently from Burma. When ordered to stop the intruders opened fire and fled. During a running gun battle that lasted about ten minutes the drug smugglers seemed to disappear into the darkness. The soldiers were unable to pursue in the dark so they called for reinforcements and established a defensive perimeter. Soon after dawn the troops searched the area and found eight dead smugglers (apparently from one of the Burmese tribes active in the drug trade) and six backpacks containing 600,000 methamphetamine pills. Also found were two M16 and one AK47 assault rifles and other equipment. Most drugs apparently get through because four days later police down south (Satun province) found 4.1 million of these pills in watertight material, apparently in preparation for being smuggled into nearby Malaysia via a small boat.

Thailand continues having problems with the drug trade in neighboring Burma, where the northern tribes fight to resist government efforts to suppress the drug production. The largest state in northern Burma (Shan state) has illegal drugs as the mainstay of the economy. The Burmese methamphetamine is a regional problem and in each of the last few years over a billion dollars in meth (usually in pill form) was seized in neighboring countries. After 2008 annual seizures rapidly increased and are now several hundred million doses of methamphetamine, worth over a billion dollars. Methamphetamine is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia and there are believed to be nearly a million meth addicts in Thailand, plus many tourists who indulge. Most (nearly half) of the seized pills are taken in China, followed by Thailand and most of it is coming from meth labs in northern Burma. The Burmese meth has become hugely popular in China, which is pressuring the Burmese government to do more about the problem and that has resulted in more police activity up there, but not enough to put a dent in the drug business. The Thais and Chinese are aware that the Burmese drug gangs have local security forces on the payroll, which is why these clashes with Burmese drug smugglers only seem to happen in Thailand. China plays down the fact that the smugglers don’t have much trouble on the Chinese side of the border because of the corruption.

May 9, 2017: In the south (Pattani province) two bombs went off at a major supermarket wounding 61 shoppers and staff. Islamic terrorists are suspected.

April 27, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat province) six soldiers were killed when their truck was hit by a roadside bomb and gunfire.

 

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