The military government is having economic and political problems. The two are linked as one justification for the 2014 coup was to restore order so the economy could get growing again. That recovery has not happened and the military is blamed. The generals have not been able to inspire much confidence among most foreign investors and customers, the traditional source of economic growth. But a lot of the economic problems are linked to Thai dependence on the rapidly growing Chinese economy. Since 2013 the Chinese are having economic problems of their own and that is hurting Thailand and other major Chinese trading partners. China is taking advantage of this, and the pariah status of the Thai military government in the West, to make itself useful and forge stronger ties with Thailand. While the Chinese economy is in trouble, the Chinese government still has lots of cash to invest in other countries and it has been using this to buy allies. The Thai generals are eager customers. China is making the investments and offering military aid and cooperation. At the moment Thailand has had many of its usual military connections with the West suspended because of Western opposition to the military coup. The generals are not surprised at the Chinese offers but is now rushing out to replace its largely Western weapons and equipment with Chinese models. But there are other ways to cooperate with China in a military sense. This includes intelligence sharing and joint training. Thailand has also won praise in China for arresting and sending back to China pro-democracy advocates who fled persecution in China. The Thais are sending back any Chinese citizens China wants.
The latest economic deals include China providing the financing and build a 900 kilometer rail line from Laotian border to the capital (Bangkok). The final price and interest rate are still being negotiated. Meanwhile China has ordered a million tons of rice and 200,000 tons of rubber from Thailand. In September China and Thailand announced a major Chinese investment that would build a high-speed (180 kilometers an hour) rail line from southern China (Kunming) to Bangkok. This would cut the cost of travel (currently mainly by air) for Chinese by more than half and increase the number of Chinese tourists to Thailand by at least two million a year. China would supply most of the $23 billion cost and construction is expected to be complete by 2021. This is part of a larger project to build a “Shanghai to Singapore” high speed rail line.
China has always preferred to do business with authoritarian governments since China is still a communist police state. The communism angle has atrophied in China but the police state is thriving. Historically China has rarely been a threat and never a serious one and Thai leaders have always been willing to make deals with the Chinese. Thailand offers diplomatic support for its new friend, which is useful as China takes on a largely hostile world because of claims on most of the South China Sea. China, of course, does not criticize the police-state methods increasingly used in Thailand to deal with political opponents.
Speaking of corrupt police states, the Thai military has another nasty problem on its hands. Recently Pongsrin Paween, a senior general in the national police, who had been assigned to investigate military involvement in human smuggling (and the associated abuse and murder of many of the largely Moslem migrants being moved through Thailand) unexpectedly showed up in Australia asking for political asylum. Paween’s investigation had led to the arrest of nearly a hundred Thais, including a few senior officers, before he was ordered to cease operations in October. He later found out that his investigation was closing in on some very senior officers who had been receiving large payments to protect the smugglers and had powerful friends in the military government. Paween feared that some of these corrupt generals might decide to get rid of him via a fatal “accident” or “terrorist attack.” There are indications that illegal migrants are again being moved through Thailand.
In neighboring Malaysia police reacted to leaked Thai intelligence reports that ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) had sent ten members to Thailand in October. This information was provided by Russia to Thailand in confidence but was leaked a week ago. Malaysian police reported that they had arrested five suspected ISIL and al Qaeda members in late November and that four of them were foreigners so there was alarm at the Thai report. Much more so than Thailand, Malaysia has been the target of foreign Islamic terrorists. In August Malaysian police arrested ten people and accused them of trying to recruit for ISIL and making preparations for terror attacks in Malaysia. The government has made over 150 arrests like this in the last year. So far Malaysia has kept ISIL violence out of the country. In Thailand the news of possible ISIL and al Qaeda presence caused little concern.
The leaked warning included details indicating the foreign Islamic terrorists were being sent to attack urban and tourist areas to gain maximum media attention. But there has been no decline in tourist activity in the south and it is business as usual in the rest of the country. Even in the Moslem south the violence down there has been largely non-existent for the last month. Even so, because of the leaked intel report there is increased police activity in the south, just in case.
November 25, 2015: In the northeast Chinese and Thai warplanes completed a two week joint training exercise.
November 20, 2015: A senior security official revealed that there has been no sign of outside Islamic terrorists in the Moslem south. This includes al Qaeda and especially ISIL. There has been talk in the south about how some of the local Islamic terrorists admire al Qaeda and ISIL but apparently there were not enough fans to get a local franchise going. That may change, but according to military intelligence it hasn’t happened yet. Neighboring Malaysia has detected a lot more al Qaeda and ISIL activity, in large part because that country is 61 percent Moslem. In Thailand the local Islamic terrorists are mainly separatists with religious leanings. ISIL and al Qaeda want to conquer the world and kill everyone who resists.