The return of democracy in February won’t be a return to the past. The military has managed to enact new laws that give the military political power it never had before. Aside from permanent control of the 250 member senate the new lese majeste (saying anything disrespectful of the king) laws can be broadly interpreted by the military. These laws allow the government to take Thai TV or radio networks off the air for a one month or more and jail individuals for 15 years or more. Even criticizing the lese majeste laws are an offense. Since taking power in 2014 about a hundred people have been prosecuted for lese majeste offenses. Thais had long tolerated very strict laws against lese majesty but now much of that support is gone. That’s because the generals can now prosecute people because their PC or smartphone displayed a web page containing disrespectful (to the generals or the king) material. But because the military government has also been unable to control the Internet it cannot just shut down all electronic media. The generals found that despite threats made to FaceBook and Google to censor material the military found offensive it could not be done. 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 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 and the major Internet firms refuse to attempt the impossible (police the Internet for Thai military). In response, the military has looked into other solutions. In 2017 the military 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 fully 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.
Another problem the military has created is the possibility that the next political opposition movement will call for the elimination of the monarchy. This was not really possible until the current king took power and made it clear he was different. Unlike his predecessor, the new king already had an unsavory reputation. To make matters worse the new king made a deal with the military government that would, in theory, benefit both of them in the long run. First, the former crown prince assured everyone that he would behave. In return, the military government 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 king died in 2016 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 it in early 2017.
This sort of behavior by the new king was not a sure thing. 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. As soon as it seemed likely that the prince would become king a lot of these photos appeared on the Internet and that made 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 former 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 old king had 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. Those who have called for the elimination of democracy in the past are no longer a tiny minority but rapidly expanding to become a majority.
The new king helped persuade the pro-democracy groups (which still have the majority of voters with them) to remain calm and they have. 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 had agreed to elections in 2018 but only after some fundamental changes were made in the constitution. 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 but were persuaded, despite more delays. Now elections are firmly set for February but so are a host of new laws that make democracy much less democratic.
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 new king and the generals recognize that most Thais are fed up with the coups. There have been twelve of them since a constitutional monarchy replaced the centuries-old absolute monarchy after World War I. 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 become more adept at dealing with coups, especially since the Internet and social media proved immune to army efforts to control Internet use. New ally China admitted that even when you employ an enormous Internet censorship bureaucracy and some very effective technology the unwelcome (for the government) messages still get through. Moreover, sites like Facebook are tremendously popular in Thailand, for royalists and populists alike. Thus the army was forced to come out and say it would never shut down Facebook access in Thailand or seriously threaten Internet access. Pro-democracy groups organized flash mobs and similar actions to remind the generals and the foreign media that this crisis was not over. While the red shirts have lots of popular support, most Thais are more interested in economic issues and the army at first was to deal with that because of widespread opposition to military rule in Thailand and abroad.
The king and armed forces believe they will still have more power even when the country is again 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.
Southern Violence Continues To Fade
The peace talks with southern separatist groups, which began in 2014, are stalled because the separatists refuse to make a deal until there is an elected government in Thailand. Another stumbling block is that the largest separatist group, BRN, has refused to negotiate unless there are international mediators. The Thai government refuses to allow foreigners to play a role and is believed uninterested in any autonomy deal. An elected government is expected to have the same attitude. Despite all that, the newly elected Malaysian leader is seeking a way to get the peace talks going, if only because those three provinces are becoming a sanctuary for Malaysian Islamic terrorists. The Malaysian terrorists are fairly secure in those three Thai provinces as long as they stay out of sight and cause no trouble. But from their Thai hideouts, they can organize fatal mayhem in Malaysia.
Meanwhile, the violence in the south continues to decline. In 2017 there were 140 violent (often non-fatal) incidents in the three Moslem provinces. That’s a 90 percent reduction from the peak year (2007) and the decline continues into 2018. While the violence continues to fade it shows no signs of going away completely. The violence has waned mainly because the government (elected or military) sent more troops and more economic development cash to the south. That, plus the fact that most southerners lose faith in the violence after a few years. There are still diehard separatists down south, as well as a criminal underground (mainly smugglers) to sustain the separatists.
The Moslem south has other problems to deal with. For example, Yala province has experienced a measles epidemic that began in June and by November there were over 1,500 cases. Most of these patients are children and twelve have died so far. The source of this outbreak is a number of local Islamic radicals who have persuaded (or intimidated) many parents do not have their children vaccinated because of rumors that the vaccine was actually a plot by non-Moslems (most Thais are Buddhists) to poison Moslem children or pollute them because vaccines are believed to contain material from pigs (which are considered haram, or unclean, for Moslems). It’s not just measles vaccine that gets denounced but other vaccines as well. The senior cleric in the south was finally persuaded to openly announce that the vaccinations did not violate any Islamic laws.
December 26, 2018: Another sign that the pro-China attitudes are weakening occurred today as a court acquitted a Chinese couple of visa violations and allowed them to stay in Thailand. China had requested that the couple be sent back to China to be punished for their pro-reform activities. In the past, the military government had promptly carried out Chinese requests for the return of dissidents but most Thais, even in the military, were never very enthusiastic about becoming too dependent on Chinese goodwill.
December 24, 2018: In the south (Narathiwat province), a police vehicle was hit with a roadside bomb leaving one policeman dead and five wounded. In nearby Songkhla province (just north of the three Moslem provinces and also bordering Malaysia) someone placed five and detonated two bombs near two popular beach attractions (the Cat and Mouse Sculpture and a Mermaid statue). The Mermaid statue was damaged slightly. The explosions occurred at 10 PM so no one was hurt, but there were no witnesses either. The statues honor ancient Thai legends and that offends Islamic terror groups especially since the statues attract a lot of Moslem tourists (mainly from Thailand and Malaysia). No one has taken credit for the bombing. Tourism is currently undergoing rapid growth. For 2018 tourist arrivals were up 7.5 percent and tourist revenue up nearly ten percent. Nearly 30 percent of the visitors come from China and about ten percent come from neighboring Malaysia.
December 22, 2018: A force of 273 soldiers left for a year of peacekeeping duty in South Sudan. The Thai troops will serve in a UN peacekeeping effort.
December 14, 2018: In South Korea Thai, naval officers accepted delivery of a 3,700 ton frigate recently completed in South Korea. The HTMS Tachin will arrive in Thailand on January 6th. The 136 man crew are already in South Korea. Another of these frigates is being assembled in Thailand.
December 12, 2018: In the south (Narathiwat province), soldiers patrolling a rural area encountered ten armed men in a hastily built camp. After a ten minute gun battle, the ten men fled into the forest. Apparently, two were wounded and the troops pursued but were unable to catch the fugitives.
December 11, 2018: The military government lifted many of the prohibitions on political activity although restrictions on criticism of the military government remain in force. Opposition political groups want all the restrictions lifted but the military will not do that as it will hurt pro-military candidates for parliament.
November 28, 2018: Thailand and Malaysia are again seizing people smuggler boats full of Burmese Rohingya Moslems seeking to reach a Moslem majority country like Malaysia or, preferably, Indonesia. Few make it to Indonesia and most are stopped at sea by warships or coast guard patrols and returned to where they came from. Sometimes smugglers are arrested but the main goal is to prevent Rohingya Moslems from landing in other nations and claiming asylum, which the destination countries do not want to grant.