Thailand: Royalists Want Their Powers Back

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July 13, 2017: Islamic terrorism and separatism in the south and unresolved struggles between democrats and royalists nationwide continue to hamper economic growth and much else. The years of civil disorder in the capital triggered yet another military coup in 2014 and the aftereffects of that are still being felt. The 2014 coup ended the low level civil war over military control of the government and now threatens to have long-term impact. The anti-democracy minority (royalists, traditional powerful families and many educated urbanites) had used large demonstrations and persuasive appeals to the military to stage another coup. The new military government now keeps delaying new elections because opinion polls indicate military rule is unpopular with most Thais and, as in the past, there will be reprisals against the military once elections are held. The generals and royalists fear that if the democrats regain power they will permanently curb the political and economic power of those who backed the military. The democrats are thinking along those lines because it is becoming clear that the 1932 deal that ended the absolute rule of the king and implemented a constitutional monarchy, is not working. The death of the elderly and much beloved Thai king in late 2016 (October) did not change anything and his much younger successor is not expected to be as effective as his father and actually appears to be trying to regain some of the royal powers surrendered in 1932.

Meanwhile ethnic Malay Moslems in the south (three percent of the population) continue to cause problems but are not showing any capability for actually achieving the autonomy they demand. Since 2013 the government has had someone down there to negotiate with and these talks were soon stalled and remain so. Most Thais are ethnic Thais and Buddhist while the southerners are Moslem and ethnic Malays. In the south Islamic radicalism arrived after 2001 along with an armed effort to create a separate Islamic state in the three southern provinces. Islamic terrorists grew more powerful month by month for several years and refused to negotiate. Security forces persisted and are making progress in identifying and rounding up the terrorists. But there is no quick victory in sight.

July 12, 2017: In the south (Pattani province) police searching for Islamic terrorism suspects at a mosque encountered five armed men. One man died during a brief gun battle with police. Several other men were arrested and several guns were found. One of the men arrested was being sought to involvement in a May 9th bombing of a shopping center (which wounded 80).

July 11, 2017: The government approved a $5.5 billion Chinese railway project that will build six stations and a 250 kilometer high-speed line linking Bangkok and the northeast (Nakorn Ratchasima province). As a practical matter this will cut travel time (from Bangkok to Nakorn Ratchasima) 75 percent (to 90 minutes). Once this project is completed in 2021 China will seek to get that high speed line extended to the Laos border and have further railroad projects under way. China has been trying to get this first rail project approved since 2010 but many Thais opposed the financial terms and the control China wanted over running the rail line. In 2016 China agreed to a lower price for a joint Thai-China railroad project. China says it has now basically agreed to the terms Thailand insisted on since 2010. But the final approval came as the military government invoked some emergency powers to disregard remaining delays and order construction to start by September. Thus Thailand will build a rail line of their own design and finance it themselves with some technical assistance and financing help from China. This will enable China to eventually construct a 900 kilometer rail line from the Laotian border to Bangkok. China hopes to have the new railway operational by the mid-2020s. Meanwhile China is building a high speed line in Laos that will complete a 1,250 kilometers line from China (Yunan) to Bangkok. This is part of a larger project to build a “Shanghai to Singapore” high speed rail line. This would cut the cost of travel (currently mainly by air) for Chinese by more than half and increase the number of Chinese tourists to Thailand by at least two million a year. The Chinese were too insistent for too long on doing the 900 kilometer long rail line their way and resisted Thai suggestions and preferences. Many Thais don’t trust the Chinese and negotiations continued until China quietly agreed to comply with the Thai preferences. Meanwhile the military government, using the power it seized in 2014, managed to silence most of the public criticism of the China railroad deal. The generals have been less successful silencing the growing number of Thais pointing out how China is expanding its influence in Thailand with the active cooperation of the military government. Nany Thais see their own military shifting from protecting Thailand against foreign threats to becoming a partner with the largest regional threat as a means of keeping the unelected military government in power. Meanwhile the military still buys a lot of Western military gear and is enforcing rules mandating that senior army officers (battalion commanders and higher) take an English competency test to prove that their ability to read and speak English is still adequate. English proficiency has long been seen as an essential skill in business and many areas of the civil service. A new rule mandates that those applying for civil service jobs must be able to pass the English test.

July 10, 2017: The air force has ordered another eight South Korean T-50 jet trainers for $33 million each. This follows a 2015 order for four at about $28 million each. The T-50 can also operate as a ground attack aircraft. The first four aircraft will be delivered at the end of 2017 and early 2018. The first order included an option to buy twenty more. The T-50 will be used for advanced training of pilots for the Jas-39 and F-16 fighters used by the air force.

July 6, 2017: In the south (Pattani province) three civilians, one of them a local defense volunteer, where shot dead in three separate attacks by the same killers. This appears related to local Islamic terrorists seeking to discourage cooperation with the police.

July 3, 2017: The army has ordered another four American UH-60 transport helicopters. The army already has twelve of them and this will get them the 16 they originally wanted. For decades the army has used 1960s era UH-1 types and long sought money to replace the UH-1s with UH-60s. Public opinion was against buying the military new helicopters, feeling that the corruption and poor leadership (stealing money for aircraft maintenance and not taking care of equipment in general) would keep the helicopters grounded most of the time. Buying new helicopters was seen as providing more opportunities for bribes.

June 25, 2017: In the south Islamic terrorist violence during the last ten days of Ramadan (the annual Moslem holy month) that just ended saw a lot less terrorist activity (11 attacks leaving 14 dead and 23 wounded) than in past years. In 2016 there were 81 attacks, 116 in 2015, 77 in 2014 and 107 in 2013. Islamic terrorists believe attacks made during those last days of Ramadan bring the Holy Warriors more blessings. Public support for the Islamic terrorists in the three majority Moslem provinces down south has been weakening because there has been no progress towards driving the Thai government out. Moreover the military government has, until recently, tolerated a lot more corruption in the distribution of money provided to pacify the area. This was a “good news, bad news” situation because much of the cash went to local officials and the military officers deciding who got what. The money was supposed to go for improving the economy. It did do that but just not in the way the military had advertised.

June 23, 2017: A Thai tanker was attacked by pirates off Malaysia. The six pirates took any portable valuables they could find while also pumping nearly half the 3.8 million liters (one million gallons) of diesel fuel the tanker was carrying into their own ship and fled. Pirate activity off Malaysia and Thailand are declining but the attacks still occur. For that reason Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore cooperate in patrolling their coastal waters and sharing information on pirate gangs. Most pirate attacks in this area tend to be the work of an organized gang. The methods are always the same. Get aboard (usually after dark) round up the crew and lock them up someplace like the engine room while disabling all communications and security systems. The pirates than transfer the cargo (usually fuel) to their own ship or another tanker that comes alongside. Within hours the pirates are gone and the crew are set free. Some of these attacks get away with loot and cargoes worth several million dollars. These pirate gangs are well organized, apparently research their targets carefully and use competent people to board the target ships at night and quickly overwhelm the crew. These pirates are armed but disciplined and don’t fire unless they have to. The pirates know that as long as they don’t kill anyone there will not be a major media uproar and pressure for an increased police effort to hunt them down. For many people in the region pirates still have some entertainment values, especially if they are not killing people. But for the shipping companies the pirates drive up the costs (especially the insurance rates) and deprive customers of goods (like fuel oil) they were expecting.

June 19, 2017: In the south (Pattani province) a roadside bomb killed six soldiers and wounded four others. Security forces responded by making ten arrests and seizing eleven firearms.

June 15, 2017: Police arrested the man responsible for bombing a Bangkok military hospital on May 22nd. That bomb wounded 24 people and no one took credit. But since it was 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. Within a week of the police broadcast the confession of the arrested man, who was a 62 year old engineer who explained in detail how be built the bomb and hid it in a vase. He said he did it to protest the military government and the fact that the military keeps taking over the government.

June 14, 2017: The army ordered 34 Chinese VN1 armored personnel carriers (for $2 million each) to replace elderly M-113 tracked and V-150 wheeled models. The VN1 is the export version of the ZBL 09, which is a 21 ton 8x8 wheeled armored vehicle that has a crew of three and carries seven passengers. It's amphibious, and has a top water speed of 8 kilometers an hour. The Thais ordered the infantry carrier version which has a turret with a 30mm autocannon and a 7.62mm machine-gun. The ZBL 09 entered service in 2009 for several infantry brigades equipped to operate somewhat like the American Stryker brigades. China has been developing new wheeled armored vehicles since the late 1990s. Until recently, these were all based on Russian designs. The ZBL 09, however, borrows more from the West. The Thai military defended the purchase pointing out that the VN1 was cheaper than comparable Western vehicles. Meanwhile the navy, which also operates 24 of the U.S. built V-150 armored cars, is going to refurbish their elderly V-150s with new engines, electronics, weapons and additional armor.

June 12, 2017: Security was increased around popular tourist resorts in the south based on intel that there might be more attacks. There were none.

 

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