The civil war between the military/royalist coalition and democrats continues. The struggle has not escalated to violence yet, but it is getting more intense. The March elections showed the democrats winning more votes than the military expected. The pro-democracy parties attempted to form a coalition government but lost out to a slightly larger coalition assembled by the pro-military parties. Because of this close call the new military-dominated government has been trying to arrest and prosecute key pro-democracy politicians on false charges and disrupt pro-democracy activity in parliament. Actually this effort began before the March elections. In February two heads of pro-democracy political parties were charged with the offense of criticizing the military government on Internet social media. This is a common tactic but the courts undermined it by not scheduling the court hearings until after the elections. The military is fighting against the possibility of the pro-democracy parties eventually gaining enough allies in parliament to take power and reverse some of the damage the military government has done in the last five years.
The military is particularly concerned about the party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a billionaire businessman whose party was among the top three favorites. Juangroongruangkit proposes to reduce the armed forces strength by 50 percent (to 170,000) and the number of generals 75 percent (to 400). Such cuts appear to be popular with most Thais, no matter which party they voted for. The government is trying to have Juangroongruangkit banned from politics one way or another. The “another” angle has backfired and made Juangroongruangkit more popular. Juangroongruangkit is much less popular with the new king, who is angry that the Juangroongruangkit parliamentary coalition were the only ones voting against the royal request that two army units be transferred to direct control of the king. It was unprecedented, but not illegal, to vote against a royal request. The king is not pleased.
Despite such setbacks, the generals feel their prospects are good because they had prepared for this possibility by changing 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 created an inherently unstable situation with the pro-democracy Thais perpetually angry at the generals' rigged system. Another source of popular anger is the degree of censorship the military has sought to impose on the Thais using the Internet. In addition to the traditional lese majeste (criticizing the monarchy) laws, the military government made criticism of the military or spreading information the military decides is “fake” into crimes.
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 in the area (India, Americans, or Japanese).
The military didn’t need the election results or exit polls to show them how unpopular they are. An opinion poll conducted after the elections asked Thais what the worse 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.”
Bad King/Mad King
The new king is conducting a purge of the palace staff along with a “loyalty training” program for thousands of officials serving the monarchy in one way or another. During October the king fired at least a dozen palace officials for misconduct. No details were provided. Also dismissed and stripped of all official honors was his recently appointed royal concubine. All this palace intrigue appears to have something to do with the king’s fourth wife, who is the queen and does not want to become an ex-wife like her three predecessors. In Thailand, discussing such palace activity publically is illegal. Nevertheless, the gossip describes a very “truth is stranger than fiction” situation.
The king’s 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.
The purge and loyalty training program is not unusual for the new king. In July he conducted a ceremony not seen since the 1930s as he officially recognized his mistress as a royal concubine (literally a “royal noble consort”). The new consort was an army nurse when she met the crown prince and later became part of his bodyguard. As is customary the queen (since a May marriage) sat next to the king during the brief ceremony. The queen was also a long-time girlfriend. The king met her when she was a flight attendant. The 67 year old king spent most of his life as a playboy crown prince. This was in sharp contrast to his father. Royalists fear the behavior of the new king will do permanent damage to the monarchy. This is just one more problem the military has created. Now there 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 and not in a good way. 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 threatened absolute monarchy into a more popular 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.
November 17, 2019: The government signed a new defense treaty with the United States. This treaty was delayed until the 2014 military government finally allowed the restoration of democracy. The vote was finally held in March. 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. Nevertheless, the democrats proved more popular than the military had hoped and that was enough for the U.S. to revive the normally robust relationship with Thailand. During the years of military government, Thailand bought more military equipment from China but found that the Western, especially American, equipment was preferable.
November 15, 2019: After a three day meeting in Thailand, officials from Thailand, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia and China agreed to create the “1511 operation” to coordinate their efforts to curb the illegal drug trade. This is mainly about methamphetamine or “yaba” in pill form coming out of Burma. This is currently the most active part of the Golden Triangle area. This is where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma meet near where the Ruak and Mekong rivers meet. For centuries this area was the source of opium, the original “illegal drug”. Sixty years ago heroin (refined opium) became a major export and more recently meth and a growing number of other synthetic drugs. China is the largest market for the meth but all the 1511 nations are harmed by the illegal drug trade.
November 12, 2019: In the south (Yala province), police have identified two more suspects who participated in the recent checkpoint attack that left 15 dead. Police ran DNA tests on blood found at the checkpoint and found that some of it belonged to the attackers who were wounded but got away. Both suspects have a history of separatist violence and are now being sought.
November 10, 2019: The navy revealed that it had purchased a counter-drone system from an Israeli firm for $4.3 million. This would protect naval bases from attacks or surveillance by small UAVs.
November 9, 2019: In the south (Yala province), some 200 soldiers and police raided 19 suspected separatist hideouts and arrested eight suspects. This is part of the investigation to find who was responsible for the recent checkpoint attack that left 15 dead.
November 8, 2019: The prime minister praised neighbor Malaysia for its continued efforts to persuade Thai southern Moslem separatists to negotiate a peace deal with the Thai government. The recently (2018) 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. Despite a few recent violent incidents the trend is still fewer violent acts. 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 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 and late 2019 but nothing dramatic and 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.
November 5, 2019: In the south (Yala province), Moslem separatists attacked a checkpoint and killed 15 people. This included one policemen and the rest were civilians, many of them local defense volunteers. This was the highest death toll for a single attack in many years. One of the attackers was captured and he was found to be a member of the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional). This is the oldest (founded in 1960) separatist group in the south as well as one of the largest. BRN had rejected the army safety zone proposal that would have experimented with some autonomy in the south, along with a ceasefire by all concerned. The main BRN objection was the government refusal to allow foreign observers to monitor any peace agreement. BRN considers the Thai government an occupying force but the government refuses to accept that label. These attitudes are the main reason why it has been so difficult to get peace talks going at all, much less make any progress. The government openly blames disagreements among the southern separatist organizations for the difficulties in achieving a negotiated settlement.
November 4, 2019: In Thailand, at an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting the U.S. accused China of using intimidation to conquer and take control of the South China Sea. Most ASEAN members agree with this assessment but China responded by demanding that outsiders (like the United States) do not interfere with a local issue. China has put a lot of economic and diplomatic pressure on ASEAN members to either back China or not openly oppose Chinese efforts to take possession of the South China Sea.
November 3, 2019: The navy has ordered several Camcopter S-100 helicopter UAVs for use on new frigates. The S-100 weighs 200 kg (440 pounds), can stay aloft six hours per sortie, and operates at a max altitude of 5,500 meters (18,000 feet). Max speed is 220 kilometers an hour. U.S. firm Boeing markets the S-100 in many parts of the world. The S-100 has been operating from warships since 2012 and a growing number of navies have adopted it.
November 1, 2019: In the south (Pattani province), two men were killed after a shootout with soldiers at a checkpoint. The two were believed to be Moslem separatists involved with an earlier (that night) car bomb the exploded outside a nearby police station. The two men were on a motorcycle moving away from the site of the bombing. Soldiers later found an unexploded bomb down the road, apparently tossed there by the men on the motorcycle as they approached the checkpoint. The bomb was later disabled by bomb disposal specialists. Elsewhere in the area armed men in two pickup trucks fired on another army checkpoint but there were no injuries.