Thailand: Saying No To China And Surviving

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December 4, 2017: The military government is learning again why military governments never last long in Thailand. Paying attention to what people want wins elections, not just ordering people to do what some generals and their cronies think is best. Eventually the coup must end or face the risk of a nationwide insurrection. As with past coups there will be elections (in 2018) and the generals want to ensure that a vindictive elected government doesn’t get power and seek revenge. So the generals are paying more attention to popular opinion rather than their personal preferences. The generals realize how unpopular some of their decisions were and are scrambling to deal with the damage. The most obvious error was changing the constitution to give the military more power permanently. The other bad errors were depending on China (for weapons and investment) and not reviving the economy sufficiently.

All of these are linked, in the minds of many voters, to the need to maintain the alliance with the United States. It was the American connection that made Thailand a popular (and profitable) place for American firms to set up Asian manufacturing operations. Thailand became one of the most prosperous nations in the region with per-capita GDP increasing tenfold from 1960 to 2016. Thais expect this to continue but instead Thai GDP growth has fallen behind all of the neighbors since the latest coup. The army realized the economic problems could not be ignored. The GDP contracted 2.1 percent in the first three months of 2014 and that contraction and slow growth continued. Unemployment was still low but income was declining as were opportunities for getting better jobs. The annual GDP growth rate is now four percent, but everyone else in the region is doing better and the military cannot hide that or explain it away.

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 suffers when it fails here. Accepting major investments from China did not have as much impact as hoped. Worse, the increased presence of the Chinese was not welcome. Many Thais fear greater Chinese influence in the economy will hurt Thailand in the long run.

In the Moslem south the military governments’ efforts to improve the economy has often backfired. For example new regulations on fishing are seen as costing most southern fishermen more money without any benefit and government plans to build a coal fired electricity generating plant are not popular, not when so many other countries are using natural gas or nuclear powered plants.

Another annoying change in the south has been the growth in Chinese tourism. Many of the Chinese tourists are troublesome and, worse yet, on budget tours and don’t spend much money. Tourism accounts for 11 percent of GDP and the big spenders tend to cause less trouble. Thus while Chinese tourism accounts for nearly 30 percent of tourist income it seems a wise move to change the visa rules to block the low budget Chinese tourists. The government also continues to demand better performance from Chinese investors and Chinese arms sales efforts. The Thais have a reputation for being tough negotiators, even with powerful nations they want to (or must) cooperate with. The Chinese, like the Americans and Japanese (especially during World War II) learned it was better to negotiate with the Thais than try to bully them.

The military also continues to have problems with families suspicious of how their sons died while undergoing military training. There are currently two cases of this in the news. One involves a teenage officer cadet who died from apparently being bullied by fellow cadets. This case is still active. Another incident involved a conscript who died during training. Further investigation concluded the death was from natural causes (perforated ulcers) not a beating.

November 23, 2017: Outside the capital a farmer reported an arms cache in a flooded rice field. Police recovered 32 grenades and several hundred rounds of rifle ammo in equally rusted AK-47 magazines. The recovered material had been buried about three months ago and was damaged by the water. The government accused pro-democracy groups of owning the ammo but there was no proof of that. In fact it was more likely that these weapons belonged to some smuggler that supplies the many criminal gangs in the capital.

November 22, 2017: Wanna Suansan, a suspect in the August 2015 bombing of a Hindu temple in Bangkok, was arrested as soon as she arrived back from Turkey (where her husband is still jailed). She and her Turkish husband had flown to Turkey after the 2015 explosion and Turkish police arrested the two when Thai officials presented the evidence against the couple. But since then the Thai prosecutors have not been able to come up with enough evidence to justify an extradition. Wanna Suansan came back because she had a child in prison and was willing to talk after returning voluntarily.

November 21, 2017: In the south (Yala province) a roadside bomb killed one policeman and wounded another. This incident is believed to be retaliation for the recent arrest of a man involved in bombings like this.

November 20, 2017: In the south (Songkhla province, just north of the three Moslem provinces and also bordering Malaysia) 25 Chinese Uighurs who had been arrested for illegally entering Thailand escaped from a migrant detention center near the Malaysian border. Within a week six were recaptured, one of them across the border in Malaysia. China demanded that the six recaptured Uighurs be returned to China but the 25 escaped Uighurs all denied they were Chinese and popular opinion in Thailand (especially the Moslem south) is against automatically sending illegal migrants in Thailand back to China. Few of these Uighurs migrants have had anything to do with Islamic terrorism and ignoring that when China demands automatic expulsion back to China of Uighurs is seen as Thailand surrendering to Chinese bullying. That sort of thing is very unpopular. Nevertheless there has been some Uighur involvement in Islamic terrorism.

In 2015 Police released a picture of a Chinese Uighur many named Ishan who was described as the suspected organizer of the August 17th Hindu temple bombing. One of the bombing suspects under arrest was also a Uighur. Several other Uighurs were believed involved in the bombing. At first the attack was seen as revenge by Uighur separatists for the Thai government sending 109 Uighurs back to China a month earlier. China had been pressuring the Thai government since 2014 to send back Uighurs who had illegally fled China. Uighurs are a Turkic people living in northwest China and many have been moving through Thailand to get to exile in Turkey or the West. People smugglers frequently use Thailand as a way station for getting people (for a large fee) out of the region and to more distant and hospitable destinations (preferably Europe or North America.) China says the Uighurs it is after are criminals (Islamic terrorists). The Thai government refused to act promptly to the Chinese requests. This delayed but did not stop the eventual return of the 109 Uighurs to China. Meanwhile in 2015 police issued arrest warrants for a dozen other suspects, some who appear to have fled the country. The government was reluctant to describe the 2015 attack as Uighur related the evidence pointed in that direction. By the end of 2015 the government concluded that the attack was about people smugglers seeking revenge and not Uighurs. Two of the suspects had confessed, but before the two could be brought to trial they withdrew their confessions claiming they had been coerced by torture. So far no one has been convicted for the bombing.

November 15, 2017: The government announced that it would set up a joint Thai-Chinese vehicle maintenance center in the northwest (Khon Kaen province). This will be for the hundred tanks and other armored vehicles Thailand has ordered from China. The joint maintenance center is largely funded by the Chinese as a good will gesture and to encourage the purchase of more Chinese military vehicles and weapons.

November 8, 2017: In the south (Pattani province) police killed two Islamic terrorist suspects and arrested a third after attempts by local religious and political leaders to get them to surrender failed. The three were wanted and police were called when locals spotted them.

 

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