Thailand: The Army Promises And Prepares

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October 5, 2020: The government is bracing itself for a major pro-democracy demonstration scheduled for October 14th . In Thailand one thing you don’t have to worry about a demonstration turning violent. That behavior is usually employed by the police to disperse such demonstrations. The government feels more compelled to use that violence because the opinion polls show most Thais are unhappy with the current government, seeing it as corrupt, incompetent and under the control of the military. The demonstrators heed polls showing that while most Thais agree with the pro-democracy/anti-corruption and fair-elections demonstrators, there is general opposition to violent demonstrations. This attitude is not unique to Thais but it is more intense in Thailand. Military takeovers, like the last one in 2014, are not seen as a public service but rather the military backing the faction that is most likely to be generous with the military.

The great majority of Thais back the effort to reform the constitution and remove the changes made while the last military government was in charge. The royalists and military leaders are concerned about all this because the pro-democracy movement has the support of a growing majority of voters.

The pro-democracy movement is also seeking to take away powers and privileges the king does retain or recently revived. That is opposed by many Thais, but so is the misbehavior of the new king, who has openly collaborated with the military, even when the military has taken control of the government. To make matters worse the king has been living in the German Alps for most of 2020. The royal entourage took over a hotel for the king and about a hundred staff and family members. This began after covid19 became a crisis last April. The queen is now living in Switzerland, in her own villa with a smaller entourage. The king is accompanied by his official consort (concubine) who also commands a unit of twenty young and attractive Thai women whose main job is to keep the king company. The king also has a nearby villa, where he often spends some time with his female companions. All this has not gone over well back in Thailand, where covid19 has caused high unemployment and economic stagnation.

The king made one quick (24 hour) trip back to Thailand in April to take care of some royal business but has otherwise been ruling the country from afar. Germans and Thais have protested this arrangement but the king has ignored any criticism of his self-imposed exile. The king has not escaped the demonstrations as a small number of Thais in Europe have travelled to his villa and demonstrated.

Army Assurances

General Jitkaewtae, the new army commander-in chief, and senior commander for the entire military, said there would not be another coup during his three-year term of office. But the new army commander pledged unquestioning support for the monarchy. Jitkaewtae alone would not make the decision for the military to again take control of the government. There are several senior commanders who must agree, some of them more senior than Jitkaewtae.

Civil war is less likely than sustained civil disorder if the military seeks to again protect itself by taking control of the government. Currently there is a major reason why the military does not want to take over; the covid19 economic recession and damage it has done to the economy. Historically the economy always underperforms when the military is running the government. The current covid19 recession is shrinking the economy by 8-10 percent in 2020 and may take a while to recover after that because tourism is about 20 percent of the Thai economy and will take longer to recover from the virus panic. The government sees the unemployment rate peaking at over 25 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 is for the GDP to lose as much as ten percent in 2020, and possibly more depending on how long it takes to get the tourists back. Exports of manufactured goods are 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 has begun to ease economic restrictions and let people get back to work.

Southern Heat

After a relatively quiet year, Islamic terrorist and separatist violence is increasing. Despite that 2020 will continue the trend of violence in the south declining. There have been exceptions, the most notable one was in 2016. While 2015 was less violent than in any year since the unrest turned nasty in 2004 that changed in 2016 as violence returned to 2014 levels with about 20 percent more terrorism and southern separatist-related deaths. That was an exception as the average annual deaths down there since 2004 fell to less than 500. The decline has been the trend for several years as there were 456 deaths in 2013.

Opinions differ about why there is less violence down there. The government credits the efforts of 70,000 soldiers and police in the south plus additional economic aid to an area that needs it badly. But ask the locals and you will hear that the local gangsters who carry out most of the separatist violence have finally realized that the locals were getting so angry about the years of separatist activity, especially the number of attacks on pro-government Moslems, that it was simply good business to back off on the bombs and gunfire. Instead the gangs are concentrating on the business of smuggling, extortion and making money. They are encouraged by the new government policy of replacing some of the army units with troops recruited locally. These are easier to bribe or intimidate and more likely to leave the gangs alone. Currently nearly all attacks are on security forces or teachers.

The majority of southerners (over 70 percent) continue to believe the peace negotiations will succeed even though they have been stalled since 2014. The government has persuaded most of the separatist groups in the south to resume peace talks but no significant negotiations have taken place yet. The southern separatist leaders (of six groups, which claim to have a total of 7,000 armed members, most of them inactive) were reluctant to negotiate with the military government because they believed that government would soon be replaced by an elected one that may well refuse to honor a peace deal negotiated by the military. That did not happen until 2019 and many of the separatist groups sensed that and agreed to resume negotiations several years ago. The separatists seem to realize that there won’t be a civil war over the reluctance of the military to allow elections sooner rather than later and that the military government is not as weak as some of them believed.

The negotiations are needed to try and settle problems in the south that have been going on sporadically ever since Thailand gained control of the area centuries ago. For most of that time the Malays down there were independent or allied with (and paid tribute to) Thailand. But in 1909 Britain, which had conquered most of the Malay Peninsula to the south, signed a treaty with Thailand that left the Thais owning what became the current three southern Moslem provinces. At the time, the Malays there considered this preferable to being ruled by the British. During World War II (1939-45) the Japanese took control of Malaysia and a rebel movement saw the resulting chaos as an opportunity to create an independent Malay state, incorporating the three Thai Moslem provinces as well. This did not happen, and the British regained control of Malay in 1945 and granted the area independence (as Malaysia) in 1957.

Unrest continued in the three Malay provinces, but was usually low key and considered a police matter. What made the current violence so much worse was the addition of Islamic radicalism. The basic problem is that the Buddhist ethnic Thais often have a hard time getting along with the Moslem ethnic Malays (and vice versa). But until the Islamic radicals came along, urging the use of terrorism, the independence movement was not all that violent and the south was pretty quiet. That changed on January 4th 2004 when Islamic terrorists raided a military warehouse to steal ammo and weapons. This set off a widespread (in the south) campaign of Islamic terrorism and frequently violent military responses. Since then there have been nearly 7,000 killed down there along with over 12,000 wounded. There have been over 17,000 violent incidents, most of them involving property damage or non-fatal assaults. Since 2004 Islamic terrorists in the south have killed more than 200 teachers and burned or blown up over 300 schools. The Islamic terrorists oppose secular education and especially non-Moslem teachers. Low educational levels in the south meant most of the teachers are Buddhists recruited from the wealthier and better educated north. The "terrorists" are a combination of Islamic radicals (most of the two million people in the three southern provinces are Moslem), Malay nationalists (nearly all the Moslems are ethnic Malay, not Thai) and gangsters (smuggling has long been a big business down there). The ethnic Thai majority refused (as they usually do) to back down in the face of Malay Moslem violence. After years of futile violence, the Moslem minority became increasingly hostile to the Islamic terrorists, and more frequently cooperating with the police. This happened gradually as it became obvious that the Thai government was never going to give in. As a result of this, the militants turned on the Moslem civilians, which was a downward spiral that is gradually destroying the remaining popular support they have. That led to the current decline in violence.

The national government has also sent more economic aid to the south and improved the educational system. The army claims that the number of Islamic militants in the south has been reduced more than half, to a few thousand with only a few of them regularly carrying out fatal attacks. The overall violence has also declined but all this is mainly because more and more southerners are fed up with years of violence. Despite all that there are still diehard separatists down there and many are organized.

October 3, 2020: In the Moslem south the security forces have been ordered to increase patrols and surveillance because of a sudden increase in bombing attacks. For most of 2020 the covid19 panic reduced Islamic terrorist and separatist violence in the south but that is changing.

October 2, 2020: In the south (Narathiwat province) two bombs went off in a rural village. The first one was used against an army vehicle but only damaged it. A second bomb went off nearby 40 minutes late. There were no injuries.

October 1, 2020 : In the south (Songkhla province, just north of the three Moslem provinces and also bordering Malaysia) a roadside bomb was used against a passing army vehicle, killing one soldier and wounding six others.

September 30, 2020: In the capital there was a large anti-government demonstration that featured a replacement of a memorial plaque commemorating the 1932 introduction of democracy in Thailand, with the king as ceremonial head-of-state. The original plaque mysteriously disappeared in 2017, along with several similar items, and the army was suspected. This time a new plaque was set in freshly poured cement. The plaque was inscribed with a message commemorating the 1932 introduction of democracy. There was an additional inscription, “This country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch.” As expected, the police removed the new plaque and went to arrest those responsible. This demonstration is a continuation of public protests that began four months ago and have gotten larger each month

September 15, 2020: The government extended the state of emergency in the Moslem south for another three months. The government has been doing this since 2005. This gives the police and army additional powers of search and arrest. The south has been quiet this year, partly because of the economic and social changes imposed by the covid19 panic. Separatist groups in the south are reconsidering their options while the small number of Islamic terrorists find that they have little local support and are hunted by a large and expert military force.

September 6, 2020: In the south (Songkhla province) a tip from locals sent police after a group of four Islamic terrorists travelling around on two motorcycles. When police caught up with the group the Islamic terrorists sped off in two directions. The police went after them and in several brief gun battles two of the Islamic terrorists were killed while the other two escaped.

September 3, 2020: The government has rejected the Chinese proposal to fund the construction of the 135-kilometer Kra Canal that would cost $30 billion and connect the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. The canal through the narrowest part of Thailand has been proposed for centuries but the expense and lack of sufficient economic incentive thwarted all earlier efforts. The emergence of major economies in East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) have changed that calculation. A canal that would shorten voyages between East Asia and point west by 2,200 kilometers (two days at sea) compared to going through the Malacca Strait makes it worthwhile for about 30 percent of the current Malacca traffic (especially large tankers or container ships) to pay a large canal transit fee (over $100,000 for a large vessel). It works for the Panama and Suez canals, although those two save ships much larger amounts of time (to go around the southern tips of South America or Africa). But the Malacca Strait handles a much larger percentage (about half and two-thirds of all tanker traffic) of world sea transport traffic. China is especially eager to incorporate the Kra Canal into its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) project that has China financing and building roads, railroads, pipelines, ports and canals and ease travel via Eurasia and adjacent waterways. Nations who benefit by being next to the Malacca Strait always opposed the Kra Canal but now Malacca is becoming crowded to the point to overload. The canal would greatly reduce the roads connecting the four southernmost provinces with the rest of the country. Bridges over the canal are expensive as they must be high enough to let the largest ships pass, so there would be few of them. Panama only has three bridges and Suez also has two (one for rail traffic) and a tunnel. With the Chinese bridge construction would probably be part of the canal project. A Chinese firm built the third Panama Canal bridge that opened in 2019. Thailand needs the bridges because most of the very lucrative tourist resorts are on those four southern provinces. The people in those southern provinces opposed the loss of so many land connections to the rest of the country and did not want to just rely on a few bridges. There is also growing uncertainty over the massive BRI projects China is offering throughout the region.

 

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