Thailand: All Quieter On The Southern Front

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September 26, 2018: The Moslem violence in the south is 14 years old now and slowly fading away after causing at least 7,000 dead. The violence has been less and less each year for nearly a decade. In 2017 a record low 235 people were killed down there and that trend has continued into 2018, even though it is getting more difficult to determine which incidents are actually related to Moslem separatism. In 2017 there were 489 violent incidents compared to the peak year (2010) when there were 2,061. These incidents now tend to arrive in clusters rather than randomly throughout the year.

Since the military took over the government in 2014 the security forces have received more resources to deal with the violence. This has included economic aid as well as better intelligence collection and analysis along with an expansion of the village defense volunteer program. Thus it has become more of a problem to determine if murders of village defense volunteers or bombings are the work of separatists or Islamic terrorists or something more mundane like gangsters for a local feud.

Yet efforts to achieve a permanent fix for the resentment of a Moslem majority population in the three southern provinces remains out of reach. This is all mainly about cultural differences (religion, ethnicity). Thailand has few (about three million) Moslems and while some of the separatist Moslems in the south (where most live) have tried to link their independence efforts to religion, it’s mostly about ethnic differences because 95 percent of Thais are ethnic Tai and the southern Moslems are nearly all ethnic Malays. The Tai people are mainly in Thailand but many also live in southern China, Laos, Cambodia and India. The farthest south the Tai got was where the three Moslem provinces are.

The "terrorists" are a combination of Islamic radicals, Malay nationalists and gangsters (smuggling has long been a big business down there). The ethnic Thai majority refused (as they usually do) to back down in the face of Malay Moslem violence. After years of futile violence the Moslem minority became increasingly hostile to the Islamic terrorists, and more frequently cooperated with the police. This happened gradually as it became obvious that the Thai government was never going to give in. As a result of this, the militants turned on the Moslem civilians, which was a downward spiral that is gradually destroying the remaining popular support they have. That led to the current decline in violence. The new pattern for the violence is for a few violent individuals operating together as a gang to carry out attacks in batches and then go silent (or get arrested). If one of these gangs is active they will account for most or all the “terrorist” violence in the south. The police and military go after these gangs as soon as they appear and several of them have responded to the investigations, and locals providing tips, by going inactive and either eventually disbanding or staying until the police attention subsides. At the moment the gangs are losing and even ones that have “gone silent” are being found and arrested or killed. Another trend is for much of the violence to come from a few individuals (gangster or separatist). In September a lot of the violence was related to attacks on rubber plantations and the people who work there. This is seen as something of an extortion effort but it is hard to tell is the attackers are gangsters or separatists. Sometimes the perpetrators are both.

There are other problems. The Moslem fanatics are hostile to secular education while most Moslems in the three provinces want their children to get a secular education because that is obviously the key to a better life for the kids. Moslem majority Malaysia next door encourages secular education and Moslem Malaysians have done well as a result. Because of the lack of education the southern Thai Moslems have been unable to make the most of over two decades of dramatic economic growth in Thailand. For over a decade the Thai government (elected and military) has concentrated on education and economic development in the south while also improving security. Progress has been made but it has been slow, as these changes usually are. Despite that the separatists (although not the Islamic terrorists) retain a lot of popular support in the south. The separatists are demanding a federal form of government that would give the three southern provinces a lot of autonomy. The Thai generals are unwilling to consider that and so the peace negotiations are stalled.

The Slight Of The Generals

The military government used “cleaning up corruption” as one of its justifications for taking power in 2014. To the surprise of no one the military government proved quite corrupt and the military response was to try and suppress embarrassing news of this. The censorship and failed efforts to curb corruption were disappointing to many Thais. An early 2018 opinion poll showed that 20 percent of Thais believed the corruption problem could be handled if a government made enough of an effort. For most Thais the military is seen as all talk and little action in the anti-corruption department. That same opinion poll also revealed how difficult the corruption problem is. Thus the poll revealed that 48 percent of Thais believed the corruption problem cannot be fixed because it is so deeply ingrained in Thai culture. Asked to name the main causes of corruption 69 percent said greed and selfishness, 28 percent said it was loopholes in the audit (monitoring) systems, 19 percent blamed it on lenient punishment of offenders, 17 percent thought it was changes in social values and 14 percent attributed it to poverty. Despite those attitudes corruption has turned into a focal point of visible opposition to the military government. That can be seen by the growing presence of clever graffiti portraying the corrupt generals pretending to be determined foes of corruption.

September 12, 2018: The king has approved new laws mandating that national elections be held by May 2019. At the same time the military government has not lifted rules prohibiting public activities by political parties.

September 11, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) an army patrol was ambushed, leaving two soldiers dead and four wounded.

In the capital the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand had, for the sixth time since the 2014 coup, one of its events shut down by the police. This event was a panel discussion of the misbehavior of the Burmese generals next door. The Burmese officers ran a military government for decades until they were forced to allow elections again in 2011. That was arranged via a deal that left the Burmese generals with a lot of political power and that enabled the Burmese to military and Buddhist militants to expel over a million Burmese Moslems. This sort of bad behavior is being described as a war crime. Some of what the Burmese generals did is similar to what the Thai generals are trying to do during this period of military government. The military government censors ordered it shut down when it was apparent where the discussion was probably going (towards comparison of military governments in Burma and Thailand).

September 9, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) a veteran village defense volunteer was murdered by a drive-by shooter. Local separatists are suspected.

September 8, 2018: In the south (Narathiwat province) two village defense volunteers were killed and two wounded when five gunmen attacked a building used by the defense volunteers for training. The attackers also set fire to a vehicle before fleeing. Local separatists are suspected.

September 4, 2018: In China construction began on the first of three submarines purchased by the Thai Navy 18 months ago. That deal was not explained in much deal other than that the three subs would cost $1.3 billion and only the first one was actually on order. Actual purchase orders for the other two were expected in 2021 and 2022, when an elected government would be back in charge. If all three subs were actually bought Thailand would be making payments into the late 2020s. 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. Every year since the 2014 coup the military budget has increased. Some of these additional defense spending involved 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 yet ended) 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 $1.3 billion 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.

August 30, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) in a crowded market a village defense volunteer was shot dead (and his pistol taken) by two men. A civilian was killed by the gunfire. The defense volunteers’ wife and another woman were wounded. Police are trying to determine of the attack was caused by a personal dispute or, more likely, the years of service as a local defense volunteer.

 

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