July 18, 2019:
The newly elected government is run by the same army generals that seized control in 2014. The only difference is that the generals are now retired and then appointed to the senate (per the new constitution) and thus eligible to be cabinet members. The 36 man cabinet is filled out with a few politicians willing to work with the military dominated government. The key ministries went to former generals while some of the choice economic ones went to influential politicians the generals needed to get a majority in parliament. Based on past performance, the cabinet of generals is not expected to be any less corrupt than the ones the generals said they would eliminate when they took over in 2014.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha led the military government since 2014 and is now prime minister Prayuth. Winning the elections was made possible by outlawing the Pheu Thai party and it’s charismatic (and very wealthy businessman) founder Thaksin Shinawatra. The military and royalists feared and despised Shinawatra, who was a popular entrepreneur and populist politician.
The generals needed all the political advantages they had obtained, by changing the constitution, to get a parliamentary majority. The recent elections made it clear that continued military rule was 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 the ability to form 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. Before the recent elections, the EC demonstrated that it had been corrupted by the military and actively supported 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 that 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 generals could not risk that actually happening and 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 and despite what most Thais want. 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, now so is 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 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 and the generals were still in charge. This may turn out to be an expensive victory for the military and the royalists.
The Thai military is seeking to maintain its relationships with its long-time military allies, like the United States, 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 the 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. Another factor is the economic problems China is currently suffering from. China insists its economy is doing well but there are signs in Thailand that this is not the case. Chinese tourists are not visiting as much as they used to while tourist traffic from Indian is increasing. Another sign is countries moving their manufacturing operations to other countries (especially Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam) in the region. That is because of the current trade war between the U.S. and China. This was long overdue and popular with other nations in the region. As the Chinese economy grows over the last four decades China became something of an economic bully. Even the Thai generals quietly welcome China taking an economic hit.
The Suddenly Silent South
The Moslem violence in the south is now lower than it has ever been during the fifteen years the separatist and Islamic terror groups have been active. The reason is that the military government did not get replaced by democrats. Peace negotiations were stalled since 2014 because the separatists thought they could get a better deal from an elected government. The military remained in power and the violent groups still operating in the south are reconsidering their options.
Violence in the south has killed about 7,000 so far but deaths have been fewer and fewer each year for nearly a decade. Violent incidents now tend to arrive in clusters rather than randomly throughout the year. There are fewer terrorists and violent separatists. 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 attract 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. Worse the military government is more tolerant of the security forces using more violence while pursuing those responsible for bombings and murders. Another thing the military can get away with is imposing and enforcing a new rule that requires the owners of 1.5 million cell phones in the three southern Moslem provinces must submit a photo of themselves to their phone service provider. The government will use this for the new Chinese facial recognition that is being installed as well as to discourage criminals and terrorists from freely using cell phones.
For over a decade the government has sought a negotiated peace in the south. A key problem with negotiations was that the largest separatist group, BRN, refused to negotiate unless there were international mediators. The 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) wants peace and reduced threats to life and property. That meant more economic activity and more jobs.
July 17, 2019: In the south (Narathiwat province), a roadside bomb wounded three soldiers. The bomb was crude, indicating an inexperienced builder and one unable to obtain components for a more lethal bomb.
July 15, 2019: The newly elected government was sworn in and accepted by the king. The new boss is the same as the old boss.
July 6, 2019: The new military government made it clear that it will continue increasing defense spending and the use of conscription. About 100,000 young men are conscripted each year. You can bribe your way out of it, so that means the poor get taken. Pro-democracy parties won a lot of votes by promising to end conscription and cut military spending if elected and that is why they got most of the votes, but not enough to get past the new rules that favor the military. Before the recent elections, the military sought a $7 billion defense budget for 2019. The defense budget has gradually increased nearly 17 percent since the military took power in 2014 and that was unpopular with most Thais. Much of the increased defense spending since 2014 went to purchase weapons and equipment elected government refused to order. Since 2014 the military government has ordered three submarines from China, as well as dozens of Chinese tanks and other weapons. South Korean T-5o trainer/attack jet aircraft were bought as well. Purchases from the United States continued, including UH-60 helicopters.
July 1, 2019: Thailand and Cambodia resumed (after 45 years) railroad service In April Thailand completed its part of the project and the cross-border rail link was declared ready for use. Cambodia completed the reconstruction of their rail line from its capital to the Thai border in mid-2018. This railroad had been built before World War II by the French colonial government and entered service in 1941. The rail connection was destroyed in 1974 after years of fighting in the area. It took nearly half a century for peace to return, reconstruction to be completed and the two governments to actually resume cross border railroad service between the two countries.