Thailand: The Constants



This will be the last regular update for Thailand. The organized violence there has declined to the point where it no longer qualifies for regular updates. Instead, we will cover any major outbreaks of violence in our updates of neighboring countries or in a Potential Hotspot piece. Past updates for all wars remain available.

Since StrategyPage began in 1999 we’ve retired more wars than we’ve added. As we have noted frequently, the trend since the 1990s has been fewer wars. Those we have retired since 1999 include Haiti (2009), Nepal (2010), Sri Lanka (2010), Central Asia (2012), Ivory Coast (2012), Indonesia (2013), Chad (2013), Uganda (2013), Kurds (2013), Rwanda (2013), Balkans (2013), Ethiopia (2013), Congo Brazzaville (2013), Colombia (2017), Mexico (2017), Myanmar (2020), Algeria (2020), Sudan (2020) and Thailand (2020). Some of these former updates included nearby conflicts that also ended, like Micronesia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

December 31, 2020: The year ended with one of those, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” situations. A month ago, it was feared that the covid19 recession might take a while to recover from because t ourism, and related activity, is normally about 20 percent of the Thai economy. There were indications that many tourists would be reluctant to return. As of a few weeks ago tourists were returning, led by the many Chinese who have become the mainstay of tourist traffic. That trend has suddenly reversed. A resurgence in tourism may not revive until the covid19 vaccine has been widely distributed. That could take months. In the meantime, a lockdown was declared to prevent the popular New Year celebrations from spreading the virus widely just as the covid19 vaccines were arriving.

Vanishing Violence

One thing that won’t change is the decline of separatist and Islamic terrorist violence in the Moslem south. The violence started in 2004 and nearly all of it took place in the three Moslem majority provinces nearest to Malaysia. In the last 16 years there were nearly 17,000 violent incidents. About a quarter of them involved firearms, about 20 percent used bombs and nearly ten percent were arson. There have been about 4,100 deaths with 65 percent of the victims local civilians, 24 percent soldiers and police officers, three percent were teachers and clerics while two percent were terrorists with six percent local defense volunteers. The violence has been declining steadily since 2010 and the army has been withdrawing soldiers each year as they are replaced by local defense personnel. The army still has a visible presence in the south but most of the actual policing is handled by local police and armed defense volunteers.

Another reason for the decline of separatist violence in the Moslem south is that the main separatist groups are too divided by what demands to make and settle for. As a result, there is often no one for the government to negotiate with. In the last few years, the dead or captured terrorists have included far fewer young men and opinion polls confirm that the separatist cause is less popular with young and that means fewer join, or remain in, the terrorist groups. There are fewer attacks and less violence in general down south and most of the population prefers that.

Comedy Court

Another unchanging element of Thai life is the embarrassing turmoil at the royal court, where the queen and the royal concubine (literally the “royal noble consort”) have been feuding. The royal court was moved to Europe early in the year but the queen is now living Switzerland, in her own villa with a smaller entourage. The king lives in a floor of an upscale German hotel 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 many female companions. All this has not gone over well back in Thailand, where covid19 has caused high unemployment, economic stagnation and dissatisfaction with the antics of the royal family.

This unseemly soap opera went into high gear during mid-2019 when the new (since 2016) king did something unusual, he conducted a ceremony not seen since the 1930s as he officially recognized his mistress as a royal concubine. 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 2019 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 68-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. As expected, the growing political opposition movement is calling for radical curbs on royal power, if not the elimination of the monarchy itself. 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 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 misbehavior by the new king was not unexpected. For nearly half a century the crown prince has been misbehaving but details were kept out of public view. That changed in the 1990s, with the arrival of cheaper digital photography and phone cameras. Gradually, a lot more embarrassing photos and videos of the crown prince were created. As soon as it seemed likely that the prince would become king a lot of these photos appeared on the Internet and that made the new king, and his military backers, look bad. It was probably for that reason that some critics of the military government were arrested on vague charges of trying to overthrow the monarchy. All this was absurd because, if there was one thing most Thais could agree on, it was the popularity of the kings’ long-ruling father. The former crown prince and 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, and avoided a civil war. Thais hoped for more of the same to avoid another civil war threat. But that beloved king Bhumibol died in October 2016 and his successor turned out to possess much less moral authority. Those who have called for the elimination the monarchy in the past are no longer a tiny minority but rapidly expanding and possibly becoming a majority.

The June relaxation of the lockdown meant the anti-military/monarchy protestors could once again assemble and protest openly. Viruses come and go but the struggle for democracy is constant.

December 30, 2020: The army and navy continue there spending spree, making the most out of their current control of parliament. The army recently ordered more truck mounted 120mm ATMM (Autonomous Truck Mounted Mortar) systems from Israel. The army already has 22 and has ordered twelve more. The army also began receiving Israeli Spike MR ATGMs (Anti-tank guided missiles) in 2020. The navy is trying to spend a lot more money on procurement. Covid19 has restricted that, or at least tried to. Earlier in the year the navy was forced 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. The 2017 order for three diesel-electric submarines was criticized for the high cost ($1.3 billion) and lack of much for the subs to do. Only the first of those subs is actually on order. 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. In parliament the opposition tried to get the orders for the other two subs cancelled but all they could get was a delay in the placement of the orders by a year. Inside the navy many admirals point out the need to address more immediate threats. For example, smuggling via boat is a growing problem. It is worse in the far south were Moslem smuggling gangs used small boats to bring in weapons, drugs and illegal migrants (who were headed for Malaysia, whose maritime borders are better guarded). The senior admirals want the subs, if only to establish closer relationships with China. The first sub won’t arrive until 2024.

December 28, 2020: There was any unexpected outbreak of covid19 cases and the first covid19 death in two months. So far Thailand had experienced only 6,285 cases of the virus and 61 deaths. This was accomplished with a national lockdown from February through May and that was lifted in June. Since then, Thais were able to move about and mingle and all seemed well until mid-December when it was discovered that foreign workers employed in central Thailand (Samut Sakhon Province) were infected and to make matters worse the foreigners worked in a popular seafood market. Samut Sakhon Province is small, densely populated and considered part of the Bangkok Metropolitan Region. The covid19 took place in a coastal area where there are a lot of foreign workers, both legal and illegal, many of them working in markets or one of the thousands of factories in the province. Since the province is basically a suburb of the national capital (Bangkok) there are always a lot of people travelling to and from Bangkok. While Samut Sakhon only has 550,000 people, Bangkok has 8.4 million and the Bangkok Metropolitan Region contains 14.7 million. That’s 22 percent of the national population. In other words, Samut Sakhon was one of the worst, and most likely, places for an outbreak of covid19 to occur. In two weeks the virus has spread to half the provinces with over a hundred infections a day.

December 26, 2020: The head of the military continues to insist that there would not be another coup. His logic is that another coup would be against the most pro-military constitution Thailand has ever had. That constitution was approved before the 2014 coup recently ended. Most Thais don’t believe this logic and consider the threat of another coup realistic and that some fundamental changes have to be made in Thailand to limit the power of the military. This is something the military has always feared and now that worst case seems to be getting closer than ever before. There have been eleven military governments in the last four decades and 19 coups or attempts since 1932, when the absolute monarchy became a constitutional monarchy that was responsible to a democratic form of government. The monarchy tended to remain neutral in these disputes but clearly favored democracy over a military dictatorship. The royal family, the Chakaris, was founded by a general who seized the throne in 1782 partly to bring peace in a time of great chaos. Since then, the Chakaris have survived by avoiding stupid mistakes. That may be changing as the military government created by the 2014 coup created more problems than it solved. Thais fear the new (since 2017) king will be the opposite of his father and end up being one of the “bad kings” and perhaps even the 10th and last king of the Chakari dynasty.

In October 2016 the 9th Chakari king Bhumibol died at 88 after a record 70-year reign. His successor, an unpopular crown prince, made a deal with the military to expand royal power in exchange for not interfering with military efforts to obtain veto power in a new constitution. Most Thais believe king Bhumibol would have never tolerated this if only because it was his father that agreed to a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and established a very beneficial, for the monarchy and most Thais, new form of government. Back in 1932 the army persuaded the king to give up absolute power and avoid a civil war. Since then, there has been a constitutional monarchy and the military has considered itself the guardian of the monarchy. But the monarchy did not encourage military government and the 2014 coup government sought to make it easier for coups to happen in the future by giving the army more power in a democratic government. Most Thais are tired of coups and have demanded reforms to curb the ability of the military to take over. Trimming the power and influence of the military has not been easy and in early 2014 there was yet another military takeover “for the good of the country.” After 2014 the generals realized they had to destroy the ability of political parties to curb military and royal power. The majority of Thais oppose this effort to curb democracy. The army got their way and the new constitution legalizes permanent military power even with an elected government. As long as this new constitution exists the risk of civil war grows.

The generals realize that and see no easy way out. Their new constitution was supposed to secure military power in the government but it has not done that. Most Thais believe the military could stage another coup despite the pro-military constitution, if they saw that as the only way to preserve their power. Eliminating that power is what the current nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations are all about.

December 23, 2020: The military ordered a major operation to reinforce border controls with more troop and navy patrols. This is meant to prevent the illegal entry of people infected with covid19.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close