Thailand: Giving Peace A Chance

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June 15, 2020: The new army strategy in the south, which has been underway for over a year, has paid off. The new approach relies less on an armed presence (fewer patrols and checkpoints) and more on surveillance technology and a network of local informants that has been built over the last few years. Most of the informants are local Moslems who have grown tired of more than a decade of separatist and Islamic terrorist violence. Over the last decade cell phone use has become universal in the south and that makes it easier and safer to be an informant. This new approach not only means fewer terror attacks, especially the bombs, but also fewer police and army raids. There are fewer active terrorists and supporters. The covid19 lockdown meant even fewer opportunities to carry out attacks or the need for raids on terrorist hideouts. There has been only one violent (guns fired) raid in the last three months and that took place in late April because the surrounded terrorists fired on the police. This reaction has become standard with most raids ending with no violence, and no bullets flying around the neighborhood threatening civilians.

Nearly all the terrorists, even the separatists, are generally seen as public enemies. The separatist groups negotiating with the Thai government (in Malaysia) admit that they have violent factions that insist on continuing the violence. These factions would have to be disowned as part of any political settlement but the radicals are steadfast in their violent beliefs. At the same time, the exiled (mainly in Malaysia) separatist leaders are dismayed with reports that most of their fellow Moslems in the three Moslem majority provinces are more interested in peace and prosperity than autonomy. In other words, give peace a chance.

During the last few months, soldiers and police have spent most of their time enforcing the quarantine. That included highway checkpoints that force a lot of criminal activity to go cross-country instead. The rural population still has their cell phone service and fear of covid19 infection. This combination led to more tips about where criminals were and that soon led to the bad guys spending most of their time seeking to remain undetected and uninfected. There has been less terrorist violence in the south while drug smugglers, who are often armed, became more of a problem.

The military was also forced to cut its budget by half a billion dollars for 2020 because of the nationwide economic crises. This means delaying some arms purchases like Stryker wheeled armored vehicles that were to arrive this year. That will be delayed a year or more. The navy has cut its 2020 spending by a third. That has led to eliminating a lot of its 2020 ship modernization work and delaying the arrival of two Chinese built submarines. Other major procurement projects are expected to be delayed as well. These budget cuts also helped persuade the military to permanently downsize. This has been a popular idea for decades.

Virus Victory

Thailand has come through the covid19 epidemic better than most other nations, both regionally and worldwide. Thailand so far has 45 confirmed cases of covid19 (coronavirus) per million population and 0.8 deaths per million. Those numbers hardly changed over the last month. Such was not the case with other nations in the region. Neighbor Malaysia had 261 cases per million confirmed cases and four deaths per million.

The stark difference here was because Thailand had a public health system that extended to the lowest levels (villages and city neighbors) with volunteers making up most of the staff and obtaining directions and medical supplies from the government. That meant a strict quarantine was not necessary and compliance was monitored and enforced by locals. In Malaysia, some Moslem clerics defied quarantine rules and continued holding prayer services in crowded mosques. Because more people in Malaysia were infected, some Thai Moslems working in Malaysia tried to return home infected with covid19. A screening and approval process was set up to catch most of these virus carriers before they got home and infected others. Another potential source of infections was the large number of Chinese tourists and commercial visitors that are normally in the country. Foreigners were sent home as soon as possible. While still in Thailand, foreigners were forced to self-quarantine for two weeks before they could move freely. Even then they were avoided by most Thais.

Thailand did not undertake widespread testing for covid19 but does know that few Chinese visitors were infected. While covid19 first appeared in Wuhan China in late 2019 the Chinese government tried to suppress the news but word-of-mouth did the job in Wuhan and a lot of tourists and business travelers canceled their trips. Some infected travelers did get out of Wuhan but Thailand was one of the earliest nations to quarantine and then ban foreign visitors in general. This ban is just now beginning to lift.

Elsewhere in the region, Bangladesh has 532 covid19 cases per million and seven dead per million. In Burma, it’s five cases per million people and 0.1 deaths. India has 241 cases per million and seven dead per million while Pakistan has 665 cases per million and 12 deaths per million people. China, where the virus began, stopped releasing covid19 cases and deaths data as part of a government program to try and blame the U.S. for the virus. Few (Chinese or foreigners) believe that and it is taken for granted by neighbors of China that the “Wuhan Virus”, as it was first known, indeed came from China.

By now it has also become known that covid19 is not much more dangerous than one of the deadlier annual influenza epidemics. The flu is taken for granted and it is unclear if covid19, which is genetically almost identical to the 2013 SARS virus, another Chinese corona (trans-species) virus, will be an annual event or disappear like SARS and similar diseases. Covid19 is unique in that it attacks the lungs and is often mistaken for pneumonia. As such it is particularly dangerous to the elderly or anyone with a weakened immune system or other illnesses. Most healthy adults and children do not notice covid19 at all even if exposed to it.

Economic Defeats

Thailand has suffered heavy economic losses so far, including the temporary loss of many jobs. Much of the damage was in the tourism sector. Chinese tourists stopped coming and soon after that most other tourists did likewise. Tourism is about 20 percent of the Thai economy and for 2020 tourism activity is expected to be down by at least a quarter and possibly a third or more. That added to other economic woes has got most Thais anxious about their financial futures. The government sees the unemployment rate peaking at over 20 percent and fears how long that will last. In late 2019 it was estimated that the economy (GDP) would grow nearly three percent in 2020. Now the prediction of for the GDP to lose nearly six percent in 2020, and possibly more depending on how long it takes to get the tourists back. Exports of manufactured goods is already booming but that cannot make up for the tourism losses.

All this is catastrophic for a country that has long had an unemployment rate of one percent or less. Particularly hard hit is the south, which depends a lot on tourism and where the less educated majority Moslem population always had a higher unemployment rate. The government will release comprehensive statistics at the end of June as Thailand lifts most economic restrictions and people get back to work.

June 14, 2020: The army has agreed to permanently reduce its personnel strength and annual spending over the next few years. The army is still very unpopular for its decade of direct interference in politics. This began in 2010 when the military intervened on the side of royalists in an ongoing dispute between royalists and democrats. In 2014 the military staged another coup. Public pressure led to the March 2019 elections that returned democratic government. That new government now has to deal with a growing list of economic and political problems.

The military changed the constitution before allowing elections so the newly elected government is basically a military government pretending to be a democratic one. Because of that in March, just before the covid19 lockdown and for the first time since 2014, there was a pro-democracy demonstration in the capital. 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. At the time the military was looking for an excuse to crack down hard on any opposition, especially when it involved public demonstrations in the capital. Not surprisingly the red shirts, now wearing black, are back. The economy is a mess, censorship is rampant and the Islamic and separatist violence is still around down south. The new, pro-military king is, as expected corrupt and unstable. Not much to cheer about after six years of military rule. Resuming public protests seemed appropriate, even though that sort of thing is now illegal. Then again, the military is much more disliked than feared compared to 2014.

A major goal of the democrats is a return of local elections. These have not been held since the 2014 coup and resuming the local elections is one thing nearly all Thais can agree on. Those elections were supposed to be held in 2020 but the military-dominated government is trying to use covid19 to push the vote into 2021. The military knows that the local elections will simply spotlight how unpopular the military has become. That ill repute is not fading away. Local elections would also remove the many replacement local officials appointed while the military was in charge.

June 11, 2020: Long-distance railroad travel was resumed. Long-distance bus service resumed two days ago. With hardly any covid19 cases recently there is nothing to spread vis long-distance travel inside the country. The three Moslem southern provinces were isolated at the end of March because that was where there were the most infected people (tourists and Thai Moslems returning lost jobs in Malaysia). Masks are still required on trains and busses and passengers will have their temperatures checked before boarding.

 

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