Thailand: The King Forms A Private Army

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October 9, 2019: A recent opinion poll revealed that a little over half of Thais believe that the newly elected government is no different than the military government it replaced. Worse, about 41 percent of Thais believe the new government is even less capable of handling the problems with the economy. In short, the military leadership appears to have institutionalized their permanent control of the elected government using changes in the constitution. At least so far. The separatist Moslems down south appear to believe this because there has been a lot less separatist violence down there since the election. The separatists are apparently cooperating with the Thai democrats to get the military out of government. As long as the military has so much government power the southern separatists see continued violent resistance as counterproductive.

The military leaders seem to agree with the opinion poll and believe they are still firmly in control and are seeking to make that control permanent. The one obstacle to this plan is that this is just a continuation of more than a century of animosity between monarchists and democrats . The military may have the upper hand now but democratic opposition is still there . And then there is the new king, the former unpopular playboy crown prince, who is rapidly turning into an unpopular king while seeking more control over the military and more money for his increasingly (compared to his popular father) lavish lifestyle.

The monarchist generals are trying to equate opposition to the military and monarchy as disloyalty to Thailand. That has proved to be a hard sell. This can be seen in how the military is losing its majority in parliament. The problem is corruption and the inability of the generals effectively bribe or otherwise persuade members of parliament to cooperate . The democrats still have the support of a majority of Thais and, based on social media activity and member counts, that majority is growing and becoming angrier and less patient.

The king is becoming more of a problem for the generals and admirals. Despite the playboy lifestyle the new king had a lot of experience in the military as a young man. He attended the Australian Military Academy and served in the Thai army and air force during the 1970s. He learned to fly helicopters, transports and jet fighters and remains a big fan of the military. A really big fan. His wife had served in the crown prince’s bodyguard and had to successfully endure the same training as the other male and female bodyguards. The king eventually made his queen an army general. Same thing with his newly invested official concubine. He also made his pet dog an air force general and made a lot of other minor but very symbolic changes. The new king is taking a more active role in how the military is run and who is promoted. If there is another military takeover the king will be more involved than any Thai king has been in nearly a century. The new king knows that history well and is apparently developing his own power base within the military.

All this is making it more likely that the next showdown between monarchists and democrats will involve serious calls for the elimination of the monarchy entirely, or reducing the monarch to a purely symbolic figure. 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 and made matters worse by making deals with the military government that would, in theory, benefit both of them in the long run. First, the former crown prince assured the generals that he would behave, after a fashion. 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 needed 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. Meanwhile, if there was one thing most Thais could agree on it was the popularity of the new kings’ long-ruling father. The 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. 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 the monarchy 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, who 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 was that 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. March elections were promised at the end of 2018 but so were a host of new laws that make democracy much less democratic.

Shinawatra pointed out to his followers that redshirt 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 democrats 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. In the long run, unpopular monarchies are removed and replaced with a republic.

Burma Tries Harder

Thailand and Burma have, for decades, disagreed on how Thailand should deal with the tribal refugees from the numerous tribal rebellions in neighboring Burma. The desperate tribal civilians were crossing the border to live in Thai refugee camps. Since democracy returned to Burma in 2011 most of these refugees have returned home. This improved Thai-Burma relations and paved the way for cooperation on economic deals. In addition the major tribal militias, like the United Wa State Army (with over 30,000 armed men) is trying hard to lose its reputation for being the major supplier of methamphetamine in Burma and responsible for smuggling large quantities of the "yaba" ("crazy drug") out of northern Burma via Thailand and Malaysia. The Wa have been very publicly cracking down on smugglers operating in Wa territory, which includes a lot of the Thai border. The Wa have been arresting smugglers to defy Wa orders to stay out and instead try to reach the Thai border with their yaba pills. Thai officials are allowed to inspect the smugglers and the seized drugs and the Wa efforts have reduced drug smuggling on the Thai border. The Wa have good connections with the Chinese and Burmese government and are apparently cooperating with a Burmese policy to improve relations with Thailand. This includes Burma taking back over a hundred Burmese a week who were found in Thailand illegally (usually looking for jobs) and sent back to Burma.

Continued violence in the Burmese tribal areas along the Thai border has resulted in at least 100,000 refugees still living in seven Thai camps and refusing to return to Burma. More of these tribal refugees are arriving in Thailand. The problem is most of the foreign aid donors have stopped contributing, in the belief that the refugee problem here was over. Many of these refugees do not want to go back, would like to become Thai citizens but the Thais don’t want them. Meanwhile, the Thais know most of the Burmese yaba is now being smuggled to international markets via Laos and Vietnam. The Thais also realize that more and more illegals from Burma are simply looking for economic opportunities. These illegal migrants are unpopular with the average Thai because the foreigners will work for less and put Thais out of work. So the Thai government has been arresting illegals and sending them back to Burma.

October 3, 2019: The army charged a dozen opposition politicians with sedition after these opposition party officials met to hold a public discussion down south about the changes in the constitution made by the military government. The military does not want public criticism of this and has been seeking ways to arrest and punish those who speak up anyway.

October 1, 2019: The king exercised another of his new constitutional powers and ordered the transfer of two infantry regiments stationed in central Thailand and near the capital, from army control to royal control. The new constitution allows the king to do this during an emergency but in this case, the nature of the emergency was not revealed. The two regiments are now administered and paid for out of the royal budget, which is now under the control of the king rather than, before the recent constitutional changes, the Finance Ministry. It would appear that the king is creating a private army loyal only to him and paid for by him.

September 30, 2019: The army has ordered eight AH-6i light helicopter gunships from the United States, along with 50 Hellfire missiles. These will replace the seven elderly AH-1F gunships. The air force also has elderly aircraft problems with its 58 F-16s having an average age of 30 years while the 34 F-5 fighters are almost 40 years old. In other words, all the combat aircraft are much in need of replacement or extensive upgrades and refurbishment. The air force does have 11 Swedish Gripen fighters which are less than eight years old. Efforts to decide on a new jet fighter are complicated by air force leaders insisting that the deal involve technology transfer that would enable the Thais to modify the aircraft software. That is usually a deal-breaker because the software is the most sensitive aspect of most modern jets and that tech is rarely transferred.

September 27, 2019: The navy put its second Krabi class OPV (Offshore Patrol Vessel) into service. The navy ordered this OPV in 2016. The first of these 2,000 ton ships entered service in 2013. Built under license in Thailand, the two OPVs are based on the popular British River class ships. The Thai versions have a top speed of 45 kilometers an hour, a cruising speed of 27 kilometers and max endurance of 10,000 kilometers and can stay at sea for up to 35 days at a time. The crew of 55 operates one 76mm gun, two 30mm autocannon and two machine-guns as well as one helicopter and several small boats for rescue or sending inspection teams to suspicious ships.

September 13, 2019: The commander of the navy revealed that he had signed a contract with China on the 9th to purchase a Type 71 LPD amphibious ship. These 25,000 ton vessels cost about $240 million and Thailand is the first export customer for an “export version” that is said to be about ten percent cheaper. The admiral defended this purchase by pointing out that the four older, and much smaller, amphibious ships the navy had were in need of replacement and this LPD offered more capabilities. The admiral admitted that this LPD, like the little used aircraft carrier the navy bought, would only find it useful only for disaster relief and not much else. This is not the first major purchase of Chinese warships Thailand has made as the 2017 order for three diesel-electric submarines for $1.3 billion was widely criticized. Only the first of those subs were actually on order and the admiral insisted that the LPD purchase had nothing to do with the submarine deal . Actual purchase orders for the other two subs were expected in 2021 and 2022. If all three subs were actually bought Thailand would be making payments into the late 2020s.

 

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