Thailand: Democracy Returns After Suspect Mutations

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March 28, 2019: The recent elections to replace the military government appear to have pro-democracy parties winning and a coalition of seven of them has already come together in an effort to form a government. The current military government continues to attack pro-democracy politicians. A month ago 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 are undermining it by delaying the court hearings until after the elections. That means, if the pro-democracy parties win a big enough victory they will be able to reverse some of the damage the military government has done in the last five years.

The generals feel their prospects in the election are good because of all this persecution of pro-democracy leaders and organizations but mainly because the economy is doing well. Thailand has the fastest growing economy in the region and is in its best economic shape in six years. The election will decide how important that was in making the pro-military politicians attractive to voters. The results appear to show that the military strategy had some impact but that the democrats were still able to prevail. The military accepted this possibility and changed 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 is an inherently unstable situation with the pro-democracy Thais perpetually angry at a rigged system the generals have created. Another source of popular anger is the degree of censorship the military has sought to impose on the Internet. In addition to the traditional lese majeste (criticizing the monarchy) laws, the military government criticism of the military or spreading information the military decides is “fake.”

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, America and Japan).

Southern Democrats

Most voters in the three southernmost Moslem majority provinces favored democratic candidates. The peace talks with southern separatist groups, which began in 2014, are stalled because the separatists refuse to make a deal until there is an elected government in Thailand, preferably one not dominated by the military. Now that elections have taken place there still remains another obstacle. The largest separatist group, BRN, has refused to negotiate unless there are international mediators. The Thai military government refuses to allow foreigners to play a role and has never expressed any interest in any autonomy deal. But the last (2014) elected government did show interest in some sort of special status for the three Moslem provinces. But with the continued (and still slowly declining) violence down there that interest in a special status may be pushed aside by a new government putting its first priority in undoing all the political changes the military government put in place.

An elected government is expected to have the same attitude. Despite all that, the newly elected Malaysian leader is seeking a way 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. But from their Thai hideouts, they can organize fatal mayhem in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the violence in the south continues to decline. 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 early 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 2019 but nothing dramatic and was 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.

March 24, 2019: For the first time since 2014 there were elections to form a new government. Official results will not be announced until May.

March 14, 2019: In the south (Narathiwat province), a civilian was killed by a roadside bomb that was apparently meant to be used against a military patrol.

March 13, 2019: In the south (Narathiwat province), at least five men armed with assault rifles opened fire on a border patrol outpost and then fled into the darkness after another group of attackers planted a bomb near the outpost. The bomb went off, destroying two buildings but there were no deaths then or during the outpost fighting or even when soldiers tried to pursue the attackers (who threw bombs at their pursuers to slow them down). The large bomb near the outpost wounded two soldiers and a nearby civilian.

March 11, 2019: In the south (Phatthalung and Satun provinces), 18 pipe bombs were planted and most exploded over the weekend. The ones that did not detonate had been found and disabled. Most (11) of the bombs were in Phatthalung province, which has a Moslem minority (11 percent) and no history of separatist violence. Same with Satun, even though this province is majority (68 percent) Moslem. It is known that some of the separatists from the three most southern (and violent) Moslem majority provinces have established safe houses in Phatthalung and Satun provinces.

March 2, 2019: In the south (Narathiwat province), one separatist rebel was killed and several others wounded when some armed separatists clashed with a ranger patrol. The separatists fled after 30 minutes of gunfire and the rangers found they had come across a separatist camp. This was one of the few clashes that occurred as thousands of rangers and soldiers were sent out to patrol areas of the province where separatists were believed to be operating. Patrols often encountered evidence that people were living out in the forests and hills, but not staying in one place very long. Some patrols believe nearby separatists detected the approach of the patrol and quietly moved away. This heavy patrolling activity went on for nearly a week.

February 28, 2019: In the south (Narathiwat province), a soldier was shot dead as he returned to his base after playing in a football (soccer) game. The dead soldier was deliberately approached by two men on a motorcycle and the man on the rear pulled out a weapon and killed the soldier. Separatist rebels were believed responsible.

 

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