Thailand: Love Us Or Else

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September 21, 2017: The military government believes it can achieve its goal of fundamentally changing the nature of Thai democracy with its new constitution. This means national electrons by the end of 2018. The pro-democracy opposition is seen as less and less of an immediate threat and most Thais just want some peace and prosperity. But the generals and royalists realize that in the long term the pro-democracy movement will revive and will remember the current military effort to change the constitution to permanently grant the military more power.

Meanwhile a negotiated end to the southern separatist and Islamic violence still eludes the military government. Currently talks are going on in Malaysia with a general acceptance of the idea of “safety zones” in the south. There are problems with agreeing on the details. The basic idea is that security in the south would be supervised by representatives from separatists and the government and when this worked (neither side attacked) the safety zone would be expanded until it included all three southern provinces that were majority Moslem. The government could then expand economic development and infrastructure projects. Islamic terrorism and radicalism is no longer as much of an issue as it used to be. That particular cause is generally seen as counterproductive and lacks much local support.

Meanwhile there is a lack of trust. For example the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional) the oldest (founded in 1960) separatist group in the south as well as one of the largest has rejected the safety zone proposal. 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.

There is less disagreement in the south now because although the violence has been underway since 2004 and there is not much to show for it. Declining 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. But the old separatist organizations still have a lot of influence, in large part because these groups opposed the Islamic terrorists as well as the increased government military presence in the south. Everyone would like a permanent fix for the unrest in the three Moslem provinces on the Malaysian border. But right now a truce and ceasefire is the best that one can strive for.

September 17, 2017: In the north (Phetchabun Province) some 340 kilometers from the capital in, a tourist bus driver was killed and two foreign tourists wounded when the driver stepped on a landline left over from an 1980s counter-terrorism campaign against communist rebels. The driver had stopped the bus so he could go into the bush and urinate. There he apparently stepped on the landmine. These landmines were cleared by the military in the 1980s and 90s but it was acknowledged at the time that some might have been missed. This incident took place in a remote rural area where few people (locals or tourists) move through on foot.

September 14, 2017: In the south (Yala province) Islamic terrorists used two bombs to attack an army patrol and then but one of then only went off when the reinforcements arrived. One soldier was killed and 18 wounded, along with two civilians. The second bomb killed a policeman and wounded six more people. No one took credit for the attack one of the few to take place lately.

September 13, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat province) a group of local defense volunteers found a bomb and called in the bomb disposal police who disabled it. Police believe the bomb had been placed so it could later be used against a passing police patrol. The fact that these bombs tend to hurt far more civilians that police or soldiers is one reason why there are so many local defense volunteers and civilians willing to report possible hidden bombs.

September 12, 2017: The navy received four more M21 patrol boats. Fourteen have been received or are on order so far and these 21 meter (65 foot) boats are the backbone of the naval patrol force the navy is updating to control smuggling and poaching in coastal waters. The M21s carry a crew of nine, can stay out for 24 hours at a time and are armed with a 20mm autocannon, 12.7mm machine-gun and 81mm mortar.

September 6, 2017: In the south, off the Malaysian coast, 13 Indonesian pirates seized a Thai oil tanker and its 14 man Thai crew. The next day Malaysian police found and took the tanker back from the pirates, arresting ten of them. The Thai crew were unhurt.

September 4, 2017: Tourism was way up in August, with a record (for August) 3.1 million visitors. This is important for the government because tourism currently accounts for 12 percent of GDP and security problems in tourist areas have been a problem since 2012. It’s not always terrorists. Tourism is a favorite target for gangsters because most targets are not well guarded and vulnerable to extortion (in return for protection from attacks.) Tourism is very sensitive to safety issues no matter what the source. Thus an August 2015 bombing in the capital led to a temporary 17 percent drop tourism. This came after the number of tourists visiting Thailand had doubled between 2010 and 2015. The target was a Hindu shrine (and popular tourist attraction) in Bangkok. At first it was believed to be the work of criminal gangs angry at a crackdown on their profitable people smuggling operations. Islamic terrorists did not claim credit for this one and no gang connection could be found. 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). That worked because the temple attack was the worst in Thai history leaving twenty people dead, eight of them foreign tourists. Over a hundred people were wounded. In August 2016 eleven small bombs were set off in the south on August 11th and 12th. Four people died and 34 were wounded, including ten European tourists. These attacks did less damage and were not in such a high-visibility location. There appears to be less negative impact on tourism because of that. But if the attacks on tourism continue, the negative impact will grow and be cumulative. Thus the importance of August 2017 tourist numbers.

August 28, 2017: The military government agreed to send 268 non-combat troops to join the UN 16,000 strong peacekeeper force in South Sudan (currently in the midst of a bloody civil war).

August 23, 2017: The military dictatorship has won a major victory as the last elected ruler, Yingluck Shinawatra, fled the country for Dubai two days before a verdict was due in a corruption trial the military had made it clear was guaranteed to result in a guilty victory. That gave Yingluck Shinawatra three choices; accept the conviction and go to jail (do the political martyr thing), go underground and rally her supporters (a majority of the population) and see how many were willing to fight for democracy or go into exile and continue the struggle from a sanctuary. She is gone but still seen as a threat. Nevertheless the government regarded this as a victory. The military needed a win because their use of martial law had increased unrest and senior military officials and their political allies are still uneasy about the lack of popular support.. Hardliners wanted to keep applying pressure on opponents, but since that is more than half the population the hardliners have less and less support even within the military. Most generals realize that these military takeovers have a short shelf life because most Thais don’t like them and this time that dislike is even stronger. That is because the 2011 elections did more than just remove yet another military government. Those elections made it clear that the trend was against such takeovers, especially since the new parliament was dominated by populists and they made Yingluck Shinawatra (sister of Thaksin who was deposed in the previous coup) prime minister. There was immediately fear of year another coup, which came in 2014. There have been eleven such military governments in the last four decades and 19 coups or attempts since 1932 (plus seven attempts that failed). Most Thais are tired of it and have demanded reforms to curb the ability of the military to take over. Trimming the power and influence of the military has not been easy and in early 2014 there was yet another military takeover “for the good of the country.” After 2014 the generals realized they had to o destroy the Shinawatra clan, which has been a populist power in the country for over half a century. It is the relentless populism that the royalists are really up against and you can’t eliminate populism with guns and jails. Many generals realize that the Shinawatras are not the problem but more fundamental aspects of Thai culture are. Now the generals have the two most popular Shinawatra politicians out of the country and the Shinawatra partisans somewhat dispirited.

 

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