Thailand: Kings Gone Retro

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February 10, 2017: The new king has been in power since December and is demanding that the power of the monarchy be expanded. The new king wants to be freed from constitutional and parliamentary restrictions that were part of the 1930s deal that turned the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. The new king realizes that the military government is still in the midst of changing the constitution and that presents a rare opportunity to give the king more power. The implied threat is that if the king does not get what he wants he will not cooperate with the military government. The generals need the backing of the king since they justified their 2014 coup by insisting they were doing it to protect the monarchy. The military got their new constitution approved in a referendum but now the king must approve it by May if it is to become legal.

The new king is not like his father, who was the first king to rule as part of a constitutional monarchy for any length of time and performed well. The new king is making it clear that he wants more power so he can do things his way, the old way. While his late father took power at the age of 18 his son does so at age 64 and is, as long feared, turning out to be the opposite of his beloved and much respected father. If there was one thing most Thais could agree on was the popularity of their late king. The crown prince is another matter. By tradition and law the Thai monarch generally stays out of politics and everyone feels that if things get really bad the king will step in temporarily to break deadlocks and get things moving. That rarely happened because the previous king was more about popularity and consensus than personal political power. That image was used as a symbol by anti-populist traditionalists and as a source of ultimate salvation by pro-democracy groups. After all, it was the king’s family that established democracy in the 1930s (to avoid a civil war) and Thais were expecting more of the same to avoid another one. But that beloved king Bhumibol is dead and his successor has much less moral authority and far lower expectations. The new king wants to make it possible for the monarchy to rule directly in times of an emergency that can be defined and instigated by the monarchy. This return to old-school monarchy is not very popular outside the royal family.

During his decades as crown prince the new king was a widely despised playboy who, it was feared, would discredit the monarchy and the power of the monarchists if he became king. The generals apparently came to an understanding with the crown prince, who behaved after the army took over again in 2011. Meanwhile the monarchists quietly sought to eliminate the more visible (and embarrassing) corrupt individuals in their midst. Some of these jailed monarchists mysteriously died. Murder is suspected, to prevent the jailed men from going public with what they know of the bad behavior among the officially anti-corruption monarchists.

The royal family, the Chakaris, were 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. The current military government is creating more problems than it is solving and Thais fear the new 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. This attitude is nothing new as in 2015 the third wife (now ex-wife) of the new king and her family were exposed as quite corrupt and quickly expelled from the royal circle. The uncle of third the wife had been arrested along with many police officials who were involved in the many corrupt practices the family of the wife were responsible for.

The military government is aware of how unpopular their rule is and are striving to figure out how to stay in power permanently without being a military government. Changing the constitution is a start and the military government is depending on China to help them out. It was not surprising that the military government developed close ties with China, which is the regional expert in keeping an unpopular dictatorship in power. So China has been quietly supplying help in controlling the Thai media, especially the Internet. The military government cannot get away with doing this openly, as the Chinese communists do, so they have to quietly monitor the Internet and then arrest suspected “troublemakers” and charge them with one of a growing list of fictional offenses. The Thai government repays China by refusing to admit anyone into the country that the Chinese Communist government does not approve of. In late 2016 the government admitted that they maintain a secret blacklist of individuals and groups who are to be taken into custody if they try to enter Thailand and, if China requests, sent back to China (even if the blacklisted travelers are not citizens of China). The Thai military government also publically backs Chinese claims to the South China Sea. Most Thais oppose Chinese territorial claims and are uncomfortable about being this cooperative with their overbearing neighbor. China is now the third largest foreign investor in Thailand and is encouraging Chinese firms seeking overseas locations for production facilities to pay special attention to Thailand (which is not as cheap as nearby Vietnam, Burma or Cambodia but is now officially recognized inside China as more “Chinese friendly.”) The military government needs the Chinese investments because Thailand is no longer the most vibrant economy in the region. Thais notice that and want a return to higher GDP growth, lower inflation and less unemployment.

The Forever War Down South

The separatist violence in the south continues to decline although while 2015 was less violent than in any year since the unrest turned nasty in 2004 that changed in 2016 as violence was returned to 2014 levels with about 20 percent more terrorism and southern separatist related deaths. In 2015 there were only 674 incidents of such violence, which was 14 percent less than in 2014. The number of people killed in 2015 (246) was down 28 percent from 2014. The average annual deaths down there since 2004 has been over 500. The decline has been the trend for several years as there were 456 deaths in 2013. Despite the increase in 2016 the downward trend continues.

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.

Meanwhile 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 9,000 armed members) 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. But in August 2015 many of the separatist groups changed their minds and agreed to resume negotiations. 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 11,000 wounded. There have been over 16,000 violent incidents, most of them involving property damage or non-fatal assaults. Since 2004 Islamic terrorists in the south have killed some 200 teachers and burned or blown up over 300 schools. The Islamic terrorists oppose secular education and especially non-Moslem teachers. Low educations levels in the Moslem south means 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.

February 8, 2017: The military government announced that elections would be held a year from today, in February 2018 rather than before the end of 2017. Just a month ago the military government insisted that, even with the new king installed, there would still be, as promised (if the new constitution were approved), new elections in 2017. That will come with a new constitution imposed by the military, in an effort to make it more difficult for an elected government to control the military. It is generally agreed that this will prolong the political unrest, not settle it. Some politicians had called for elections to be delayed until 2018 so that details of the new constitution could be worked out. Most Thais want new elections, so they can get rid of the military government that seized power in 2014.

February 2, 2017: The government signed sixteen economic agreements with neighbor Burma. Thailand is a major investor in Burma (although China invests over six times as much) but a lot of Burmese work in Thailand.

January 26, 2017: In the north (Chiang Mai province) soldiers on patrol at night encountered a group of at least six armed men apparently from Burma. When ordered to stop the intruders opened fire and fled. The soldiers returned fire but were unable to pursue in the dark. Soon after dawn the troops searched the area and found one dead body (apparently from one of the Burmese tribes active in the drug trade) and two backpacks containing 290,000 methamphetamine pills. Thailand continues having problems with the drug trade in neighboring Burma, where the northern tribes fight to resist government efforts to suppress the drug trade. The largest state in the north (Shan state) has illegal drugs as the mainstay of the economy. The Burmese methamphetamine is a regional problem and in each of the last few years over a billion dollars in meth (usually in pill form) was seized in neighboring countries. After 2008 annual seizures rapidly increased and are now several hundred million doses of methamphetamine, worth over a billion dollars. Methamphetamine is the most popular drug in Southeast Asia and there are believed to be nearly a million meth addicts in Thailand, plus many tourists who indulge. Most (nearly half) of the seized pills are taken in China, followed by Thailand and most of it is coming from meth labs in northern Burma. The Burmese meth has become hugely popular in China, which is pressuring the Burmese government to do more about the problem and that has resulted in more police activity up there, but not enough to put a dent in the drug business.

January 15, 2017: Down south, just across the border in Malaysia, police arrested six men suspected of Islamic terrorist activity. Police also shut down a bomb making workshop. One of those arrested was a Thai Moslem and he is believed to have ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) connections.

 

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