Thailand: Who Do You Love

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December 30, 2019: The new elected military government is behaving much like the former unelected military government. For example, the new government is using compliant courts to terrorize journalists by using jail terms for fabricated offenses and getting opposition political parties outlawed the same way. This ensures that the civil war between the military/royalist coalition and democrats continues. The more the military tries to suppress the democrats the more anger they generate among the majority of Thais who do not want to be ruled by the military. The generals realized they were in trouble after the March 2019 elections showed the democrats winning more votes than 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. This close call for the new military dominated government led to the current policy of terrorizing individual critics (real, suspected or imagined) and litigating suspect organizations out of existence. Methods include trying to arrest and prosecute key pro-democracy politicians on false charges and disrupt pro-democracy activity in parliament.

A lot of these tactics and techniques were used before the March elections. In February two leaders 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 initially undermined it by scheduling the court hearings until after the elections. At that point, the judges could be pressured to do what the generals wanted. On the street level, the government has gangs of men in civilian clothes and masks openly attacking leaders of the opposition. These attacks are not fatal and are meant to intimidate. The attackers apparently do not fear arrest or interference by the security forces. The military is fighting against the possibility of the pro-democracy parties eventually gain enough allies in parliament to gain power and reverse some of the damage the military government has done in the last five years.

The opposition is quite open about what would happen to the military once full democracy is restored. One popular proposal is to reduce the armed force's 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. Given the large number of generals that will be individually prosecuted for crimes committed since the last coup in 2014, the number of active duty generals will have to be cut anyway.

Despite such threats, 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 both 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 a 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, now criticism of the military or spreading information the military decides is “fake” can get you arrested

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. This last item is particularly troublesome because China is a nation most Thais do not trust, or at least trust less than any other major power in the area like 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 election 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.”

Economics

Thailand has had the fastest growing economy in the region and is in the best economic shape since the 2014 coup. The rate of growth has recently stalled despite growing tourism activity and more businesses moving their operations out of China to other nations in the region. The GDP growth rate for 2019 was 2.5 percent. In late 2018 there were forecasts for 2019 GDP growth of between three and four percent. This time the estimates are more realistic and see growing of 2.5-3 percent for 2020. Economists point out that, since the military took over in 2014, the economic fundamentals have changed for the worse. Now there are fears that the unrest in Hong Kong, which is a key economic component for the regional economy, might lead to another regional or global recession. The Hong Kong stock exchange is the fifth largest in the world and Hong Kong financial services are key elements in the economic success of China and most of East Asia. For Thailand, the economic angle appears to be less of a factor than the military hoped.

December 29, 2019: A new opinion poll showed that opposition politician and political party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was favored as a prime minister by 31.4 percent of Thais compared to 23.7 percent for the actual prime minister former general Prayut Chan Ocha. Juangroongruangkit is a billionaire businessman whose party was among the top three favorites. 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 but the king is not nearly as popular as his father and more Thais are considering the possibility of eliminating the monarchy.

December 28, 2019: A new record for foreign tourists was reached when it went over 39 million. That’s a million more than 2018 and the source of $65 billion in economic activity.

December 20, 2019: In the south, two soldiers were charged with murdering civilians during counter-terror operations. The separatist and Islamic terror attacks were down in the last year but aggressive army tactics led to a growing number of dead civilians and apparently someone in charge realized that this provided more support for the separatists and religious fanatics. So the troops were warned to be more careful. Now some of the soldiers who ignored that warning are being prosecuted. The violence in the south has been going on since 2004 and deaths are approaching 7,000.

December 6, 2019: The army received 38 Chinese VN1 armored personnel carriers. These cost $2 million each and had been ordered in 2017. These are to replace elderly M-113 tracked and V-150 wheeled models. The VN1 is the export version of the ZBL 09, which is a 21 ton 8x8 wheeled armored vehicle that has a crew of three and carries seven passengers. It's amphibious and has a top water speed of 8 kilometers an hour. The Thais ordered the infantry carrier version which has a turret with a 30mm autocannon and a 7.62mm machine-gun. The ZBL 09 entered service in 2009 for several infantry brigades equipped to operate somewhat like the American Stryker brigades. China has been developing new wheeled armored vehicles since the late 1990s. Until recently, these were all based on Russian designs. The ZBL 09, however, borrows more from the West. The Thai military defended the purchase pointing out that the VN1 was cheaper than comparable Western vehicles.

Also included in this shipment were eleven Chinese VT4/MBT3000 tanks. Many more of these have already arrived. The VT4s have all the latest updates for that model. The Chinese are trying to win over Thailand from decades of preferring Western weapons, even if the Western stuff costs a lot more than comparable (on paper) Russian or Chinese models. The VT4s are different. They are cheaper but they are also export models of the Type 98/99 tanks, the most modern China has. While the Type 98/99 is basically an improved Russian T-72 that sells for about $5.4 million each it is built to higher standards than was normal for Cold War era designs like the T-72. Even the export models have world-class electronics and vehicle performance. The army is satisfied with the VT4 and wants to buy as many as 150.

The army still buys American weapons. The latest purchases include Stryker wheeled armored vehicles and AH-64 helicopter gunships.

December 4, 2019: In the north (Chiang Mai province), police detained the wife of the leader of a Burmese rebel group (the AA or Arakan Army). This took place near the Burma border when she came to renew her visa. The government is blaming the AA for causing a lot of violence on the Burmese side of the border that has sent nearly 100,000 Burmese refugees into Thailand over the last year. The Burmese government recently sent Thai officials a list of names of rebel refugees (family members of rebel leaders) that should be expelled from Thailand, into Burmese custody. This would make it easier to persuade groups like the AA to join a ceasefire and peace negotiations.

December 2, 2019: Thailand has agreed to join with Burma, Bangladesh and India to cooperate in maintaining security in the Bay of Bengal. This maritime zone is frequently used by smugglers and other criminals traveling across the Bay to nations bordering it.

November 27, 2019: In the northwest, across the border in Burma (Karen State) a Burmese army advance on an MNLA (Mon National Liberation Army) base near the Thailand border caused several hundred Mon villagers to flee into Thailand to escape the fighting. The army began the fighting when some of their troops were not allowed to enter an area controlled by the MNLA. Five days late the Burmese troops withdrew from an MNLA base they had captured near the border. The army insisted on keeping an outpost in the area. The MNLA has a peace agreement with Burma and the army admitted it violated that by seizing the MNLA base in late November. Clashes like this, between soldiers and tribal rebels who have made peace, are common and that main reason there has been no peace with the border tribes since Burma became independent in the late 1940s.

 

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