The generals are not amused by, and increasingly hostile to any criticism of their effort to make military rule permanent. The new “elected” military government has adopted a zero tolerance policy towards public criticism, especially satire appearing on the Internet. This is how Thailand’s new ally, China, handles such criticism of the communist police state rule that has existed there since the late 1940s. Most Thais don’t want to live under police state rule but their military leaders want to stay in power and to accomplish that sacrifices (preferably by their opponents) must be made.
The military leadership realizes, from the way recent elections turned out, that continued military rule is not popular. 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 party 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 as unelected rulers. 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. 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, criticism of the military or spreading information the military decides is “fake” is also prohibited.
The generals feel their prospects are good because they now have the resources to regularly rig elections 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.
Even with all these new rules, the PPP did not receive a majority of the votes for the parliament, where whoever gets the support of most members of parliament can form a government and try to pass laws, which the senate must approve. But while a PPP official is the new prime minister his coalition of smaller parties (needed to achieve a majority) is proving difficult to control and keep out of jail. Many of the small parties willing to serve the military-run PPP were themselves operated by opportunistic politicians, many of them with a history of shady deals and other indictable activities. Meanwhile, the pro-democracy parties are not giving up, if only because they have the support of most Thais. However, the Thai generals have made it clear that any illegal (as they define it) opposition will be treated as treason and severely punished. A decade ago, when the military was threatening to take over because of the growing violence between democrats and their opponents, the generals insisted they wanted to avoid civil war. Yet throughout Thai history what the generals are now doing is what leads to civil war. History repeats itself when you misinterpret it.
The Moslem violence in the south is fifteen years old now and slowly fading away after causing about 7,000 deaths. 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 and 2019, 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. There are fewer terrorists and the ones still active tend to be less violent. This is partly a defensive measure. The violence-minded southerners have noted that too many attacks in one area attracted too much attention from the security forces and local Moslems who are generally fed up with the years of violence and little to show for it.
For over a decade the government has sought a negotiated peace in the south. Since 2014, when the military took over, peace talks with southern separatist groups have been stalled because the separatists refuse to agree on what they can all get behind. Another problem is that the separatists believed the military government would eventually be replaced by an elected one that would be easier to deal with. That did not turn out as expected. Another key problem was that the largest separatist group, BRN, refused to negotiate unless there were international mediators. The Thai military government refused to allow foreigners to play a role and has never expressed any interest in any autonomy deal. That is not expected to change with the new elected military government and the BRN finds itself with fewer supporters after that. 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.
June 15, 2019: In the south (Narathiwat province), a Buddhist couple was shot dead on a remote road and their motorbike stolen, possibly for use in another attack (like explosives hidden on the bike and set off remotely). Bombings of this type are common because many motorbikes are left unattended in markets while their owners shop.
June 13, 2019: In the southwest (Satun province), which borders Malaysia, a smuggler boat landed 65 illegal Burmese Rohingya Moslems headed for Malaysia. The Rohingya were from a refugee camp in Bangladesh and the boat was operated by six men (one Thai and five Burmese) and was spotted by Thai and Malaysian border patrols. The 65 Rohingya could have made across the border with the help of guides but that would have been risky and time consuming since the refugees contained some young children. Thai and Malaysian are trying to find out if the boat operators are part of a larger smuggling operation. This incident was not unique as groups of illegal migrants have been found in the forest areas along the border with Malaysia. In one recent case, the illegals had lost their guide and were themselves lost and starving.
June 4, 2019: In the Moslem south, the Moslem holy month of Ramadan, which began on May 5th, ended. The security forces increased their efforts during Ramadan because Islamic terrorists believe attacks against enemies of Islam during that month are particularly righteous, especially if you do not harm Moslems. Despite all the additional security, there were 21 terrorist attacks in the three southern Moslem majority provinces although most of these attacks caused few casualties. This was more attacks than in most months but also reflected the downward trend
May 29, 2019: The air force is having the South Korean manufacturer of its new T-50 jet trainers upgrade them to also serve as combat aircraft. This will include adding a radar as well EW (Electronic Warfare) gear that will enable the T-50 to warn pilots if an enemy radar is detecting it, as well as countermeasures to degrade enemy heat-seeking missile effectiveness. This will cost about $4.5 million per aircraft and will be completed by 2021. A year ago the first four (of 12) South Korean T-50 jet trainers on order entered service. Another eight were ordered in July 2017 for $33 million each and will arrive in late 2019. This followed a 2015 order for four at about $28 million each. The T-50 can also operate as a ground attack aircraft. The first four aircraft were delivered on schedule in early January. The first order included an option to buy twenty more. The T-50 is used for advanced training of pilots for the Jas-39 and F-16 fighters used by the air force.
May 27, 2019: In the south (Pattani Province), BRN separatists set off a bomb in a market. The target was police guarding the market but that did not work as planned and all the casualties (two dead, 19 wounded) were Moslems shopping for a Ramadan meal (eaten after sundown when the day-long fast ends). Four security personnel were lightly wounded as well but because most of the casualties were devout Moslems that attack did not have the desired effect. Soon after the attack, more than 400 locals (most of them Moslems) gathered in the market to openly protest the separatist violence.
May 25, 2019: In the south (Songkhla Province), a bomb went off as police patrolled outside a railroad station. One policeman was killed and three wounded, as well as a civilian bystander.
In Bangladesh, the UN began issuing ID cards to Burmese Rohingya refugees in mid-2018 and so far have issued the IDs to about a third of the 740,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Thailand is not bothered by the Rohingya situation but is annoyed at the continued use of Thailand as a transit point for illegal Rohingya migrants. The Bangladesh IDs make it easier for Rohingya to return to Burma because the ID is proof that they were pushed out of Burma by the army and vigilantes in the first place. But few Rohingya are going back, even with the ID card. Their homeland in northern Burma (Rakhine state) is still too dangerous for any Rohingya. The Burmese government is being threatened with sanctions but the army dominated government is not impressed. The military knows that China is eager to be Burma’s main ally, to the exclusion of Western nations. India still works with Burma, to deal with tribal rebels who operate along their common border. Thailand knows that all this means Rohingya illegals will be their problem for a long time.