Thailand: The Long War

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May 23, 2019: The military does not like how the recent elections turned out. Two-thirds of the votes were for pro-democracy candidates although the pro-military PPP (Palang Pracharath Party) ended up with the largest share of the votes for a single party. PPP was the one created to perpetuate military influence in the government. This status as the single largest bloc of parliament members in one party gave the PPP a good chance of forming a new government in coalition with some of the smaller parties.

The PPP was aided by changes the military made to government institutions during their five years in power. For example, the Election Commission is supposed to be independent and able to deal fairly with disputes over election procedures and accusations of corruption. The current EC has shown itself to be corrupted by the military and actively supporting efforts by the military to rig the vote and suppress criticism. For the military and royalists, this is considered a success but historians and most Thais see it as proof the Thai democracy is in trouble and the military was the cause, not the solution.

The military prepared for the possibility of pro-democracy parties getting a majority in parliament and, in theory, control of the government. The military changed the constitution to make it more difficult for a government to form without at least a military faction. That’s because to form a government you need a majority of the combined 500 member parliament and the new 250 member senate whose members are not elected but appointed by the current government, which for the first five-year term of the new senate means all members will be selected by the generals. After that, if the military can maintain control over those appointed Senate seats they have a lock on controlling or having a decisive role in any future government.

The only sure way a non-military government can be formed is by gaining control of 376 seats (76 percent) in parliament. Before the military changed the rules a majority in parliament was sufficient to form a government. But now those 250 appointed senators have a decisive vote on forming new governments. The majority of Thais oppose this new system but the current military government is seeking to maintain power indefinitely while pretending to be a democracy. While this makes the military leadership feel more secure it is an inherently unstable situation with the pro-democracy Thais perpetually angry at the rigged system the generals have created. Another source of popular anger is the degree of censorship the military has sought to impose on the Internet. In addition to the traditional lese majeste (criticizing the monarchy) laws, the military government criticism of the military or spreading information the military decides is “fake.”

The generals feel their prospects are good because they now have the resources to rig the election and prosecute any pro-democracy leaders who complain. The military will stress that because the economy is doing well it is unwise to switch governments. Thailand does have the fastest growing economy in the region and is in the best economic shape in six years. But the rate of growth is declining and economists point out that since the military took over in 2014 the economic fundamentals have changed for the worse. The economic angle appears to be less of a factor than the military hoped. It turns out that there was no way to make the pro-military politicians attractive to voters. The exit polls after the March elections showed that the democrats had won in a big way. But after the military-appointed election bureaucrats got finished that democratic majority had been reduced to a more manageable size.

Another major source of aggravation is that as long as the military has a lot of control over the government there will be higher defense spending (usually on expensive weapons Thailand does not need) and closer links with China (a nation most Thais do not trust, or at least trust less than any other major power active in the area, especially India, America, or Japan.

The military didn’t need true election results or exit polls to show them how unpopular they are. A pre-election opinion poll asked Thais what the worst things were about Thailand. A majority (52 percent) said politics (the corruption and bad behavior of those in power). Another 26 percent cited the lack of democracy and 19 percent choose a “lack of unity.”

Economic Woes

Economic growth rates are declining. GDP grew 2.8 percent in the first three months of 2019 compared to 3.6 percent during the same period in 2018. The government has reduced its GDP growth rate predictions to a little under 4 percent for 2019 from a little over 4 percent that was expected in late 2018. The decline became acute in mid-2018. In the third quarter of 2018 GDP growth was only 3.3 percent. Earlier in the year, 2018 GDP growth was expected to hit 4.1 percent for the year but the reality was worse with 2018 GDP growth certain to be less than four percent. Economic prospects declined right after the military coup, with a drop in labor productivity in 2014 that persisted. Five years of military rule have not fixed that and five years of lower productivity have reduced exports in areas like electronics and other manufactured goods that depend on foreign markets. Thailand was becoming less competitive while the political unrest and uncertainty of a military government and efforts by royalists and supporters of the military to make greater military political power permanent, discouraged foreign investment. The one exception was China, which is the one major economic power that most Thais do not want closer ties with.

Paying attention to what people want wins elections, not just ordering people to do what some generals and their cronies think is best. Eventually, military domination must end or face the risk of a nationwide insurrection. As with past periods of military interference, there will be elections and the generals want to ensure that a vindictive elected government doesn’t get power and seek revenge. The most obvious potential error the generals made was changing the constitution to give the military more power permanently. The other damaging policy was depending on China (for weapons and investment) despite the knowledge that such an approach drives away traditional (Western) business partners. The continuing decline in their ratings indicates a failure to deal with these problems.

Moslem Violence In The South

While most people in the three southern majority provinces favored democratic candidates they are apparently prepared to deal with the new pro-military elected government. The southerners want peace and will deal with what appears to be long-term rule by a military dominated national government. The 2014 peace talks with southern separatist groups are still stalled because the separatists refuse to agree on what they can all get behind. The key problem remains refusal by the largest separatist group, BRN, to negotiate unless there are international mediators. The Thai military government refused to allow foreigners to play a role and has never expressed any interest in autonomy. That is not expected to change with the new government and the BRN finds itself with fewer supporters after the recent elections. The continued (and still slowly declining) violence down there is the only meaningful measure of progress. Military and police commanders agreed with local officials that what counted most for the population (especially the Buddhist minority) was peace and reduced threats to life and property. That meant more economic activity and more jobs.

The army is confident that they are winning this “law and order” aspect of the war down there. A recent example of this is a new program in which the army selected 218 soldiers for special training and assignments that would station small groups of them in remote villages down south. There the soldiers would literally live with the villagers and provide local protection against any form of lawlessness. At the same time, these troops would keep the local military and police commanders informed about whatever the troops discovered about Islamic terrorists or separatists operating in the area, or who had been doing so in the past.

This is a risky experiment because the BRN has found that it has factions of fighters who believe attacks on civilians are not counter-productive because they embarrass the military, whether the military runs the government or not. These radical factions seem unconcerned that killing civilians turns more southern Moslems against BRN and the goal of a separatist state. These radical factions would consider small groups of soldiers living in rural villages as ideal targets. This was taken into account and the rural village teams are being assigned to areas that are not in the vicinity of any of these radical factions. Still, the risk is there.

Meanwhile, the recently elected leader of southern neighbor Malaysia will continue seeking ways 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. From their Thai hideouts, they can organize fatal mayhem in Malaysia.

The only good news down south is that the separatist and Islamic terrorist violence 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 continued into 2018 and early 2019. 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 lost 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. There was a brief upsurge in violence at the end of 2018 and in early 2019 but nothing dramatic and was apparently an effort by more extreme separatist factions to trigger military intervention by Malaysia. That was never likely but the separatists are running out of options.

May 19, 2019: Thailand is still having problems with Burmese Moslems trying to use Thailand as a way station on their journey to a country that will provide them with asylum, rather than refugee status and confinement to a refugee camp. Most of this people smuggling is taking place up north in Bangladesh where police are still encountering people smuggling operations that offer to get Burmese Rohingya refugees an opportunity to get out of Bangladesh and to more “refugee-friendly” countries like Malaysia, where, if the Rohingya can pay for it, the people smugglers will get them to Indonesia or Western countries. Australia used to be a favorite (and expensive) destination but the Australians have cracked down on the people smugglers and their clients in a big way over the last decade. Thailand has also become very hostile to Rohingya refugees and their gangster guides. Bangladesh and Thai police now pay more attention to local fishing boats and catch many of the people smugglers who buy or rent fishing boats and then put fifty or more Rohingya on them and make for Malaysia (after passing Thailand). The Rohingya often spend their life savings and just about all the cash they have to the people smugglers and there are no refunds if the police interfere. The people smuggling gangs lose a boat and some low-level employees but still make money and there are more and more Rohingya willing to pay the price for a chance of escaping long-term stays in Bangladesh refugee camps.

May 14, 2019: The army announced it is buying 60 American Stryker 8x8 wheeled armored combat vehicles. Thailand will pay $2.55 million each for 37 of the vehicles but the other 23 will be provided free as part of American military assistance. The first of these vehicles will arrive by the end of 2019. The Thai military is seeking to maintain its relationships with its long-time military ally while also developing similar relationships with China. Most Thais prefer the Americans to the Chinese but the military needs an alternative source of equipment and military cooperation in case its plans for long-term military dominated rule in Thailand lead to an anti-military revolution. Moreover, many Thai generals don’t trust the Chinese as much as they do the Americans.

May 2, 2019: In the south (Pattani province), police seeking Islamic terrorists in a rural village found one, who fired on the police and was killed by gunfire before he could escape into the forest. One policeman was wounded. The dead man was later identified as a known terrorist who, like most of his fellow terrorists, was much less active and seeking long-term sanctuary inside Thailand until it was safer to carry out more attacks. Police operations like this one are more common throughout the three provinces and most civilians welcome them.

Off the coast of southern China, several navy ships began a week of joint training with the Chinese navy. China is seeking to become the main supplier of warships and naval weapons for Thailand, which has previously obtained these items from Western suppliers.

 

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