Thailand: Frenemy With China

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August 17, 2017: Islamic terrorist and separatist violence in the south continues to decline and a major factor is the growing use of security cameras. Recognizing that the government is installing another 1,800 of these vidcams in the south. This will bring the total operating in the three southern provinces to more than 8,000. The use of security cameras has steadily increased since the late 1990s and by 2013 the Islamic terrorists and criminal gangs openly went to war against the growing number of the cameras installed in the south. Initially a dozen or more cameras were destroyed each week. That prompted security companies to employ vandal-proof installation techniques that made the cameras more difficult to destroy and often captured video of those carrying out the attacks (by having visible cameras watched by hidden ones). By 2015 the use of security camera video to identify Islamic terrorists has become more common and in response Islamic terrorists in some areas made extraordinary efforts to destroy or disable the cameras. This was unpopular with most locals because the cameras tend to reduce crime, or at least ensure that criminals are caught. So the Islamic terrorists backed off on their anti-camera campaign. The growing use of cameras has changed terrorist tactics, with well covered (by cameras) areas and targets avoided. This meant more attacks in rural and thinly populated areas. This lowered the number of casualties but even when there were no cameras at the attack site they were often some nearby that would provide useful clues to who did what.

What The Generals Fear Most

The military government has been less successful dealing with problems that most Thais really care about, like economic issues and the army has not been able to deal with that because of widespread opposition to military rule in Thailand and abroad. The economic problems cannot be ignored because people notice the impact and the statistics cannot be hidden. Thailand is falling behind its neighbors in terms of economic growth. Some of the problems have been around for a while but GDP contracted 2.1 percent in the first three months of 2014 because of the coup and that contraction and slow growth continued. Unemployment is still low but income is declining as are opportunities for getting better jobs. Most Thais remember that in all the post-World War II coups (1951, 1957, 1958, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1991 and 2006) the economy improved after the army took over. So the army is paying attention to economic problems and is not doing so well at it. Even accepting major investments from China has not turned the economy around and many Thais fear greater Chinese influence in the economy will hurt Thailand in the long run. The military makes much of the fact that GDP growth so far in 2017 is the highest it has been the highest in four years. Most Thais realize that GDP growth was much higher before the latest coup in 2014 and that the future does not look bright.

Despite the economic problems compared to the last military governments this one is concentrating on permanently increasing military power in future governments, even democratic ones. Thus the increased media censorship would make it easier to get pro-military people elected to parliament in free elections. These are now supposed to happen by the end of 2018. The military would prefer that the opposition got really violent but it is clear (and spoken of quite openly) that the opposition leaders have convinced their followers to just let the military government self-destruct. Many royalists and military leaders fear that is a real possibility.

The generals apparently see the aftermath of the 2006 coup as a mistake and are seeking to avoid angry voters from coming after them in the future. Thus while after the 2006 coup the military controlled only 28 percent of the seats in parliament, after the latest (2014) coup the military controls 57 percent of the seats. This time around there are more active or retired officers in the cabinet (a third now compared to 11 percent after 2006). The military is constantly seeking senior officers willing to take key civilian jobs in the civil service and hold them long-term. The military is seeking stronger diplomatic and military connections with China and relying on China for advice on how to impose media censorship on a market economy. The military appears to believe they are succeeding despite popular opinion to the contrary.

Tough On China

A month ago the government approved a $5.5 billion Chinese railway project that will build six stations and a 250 kilometer high-speed line linking Bangkok and the northeast (Nakorn Ratchasima province). But construction cannot begin until China and Thailand can agree on the terms for the millions of dollars China agreed to loan Thailand to finance the portion of the project Thailand would own. Thailand accuses China of demanding unfair and excessive interest rates and collateral. Until this is settled it will further delay the project. The Thais have a reputation for being tough negotiators, even with powerful nations they want to (or must) cooperate with. The Chinese, like the Americans and Japanese (especially during World War II) learned it was better to negotiate with the Thais than try to bully them.

The new rail project is popular with Thais as it will cut travel time (from Bangkok to Nakorn Ratchasima) 75 percent (to 90 minutes). Once this project is completed in 2021 China will seek to get that high speed line extended to the Laos border and have further railroad projects under way. China has been trying to get this first rail project approved since 2010 but many Thais opposed the financial terms and the control China wanted over running the rail line. In 2016 China agreed to a lower price for a joint Thai-China railroad project. China says it has now basically agreed to the terms Thailand insisted on since 2010. But the final approval came as the military government invoked some emergency powers to disregard remaining delays and order construction to start by September. Thus Thailand will build a rail line of their own design and finance it themselves with some technical assistance and financing help from China. This will enable China to eventually construct a 900 kilometer rail line from the Laotian border to Bangkok. China hopes to have the new railway operational by the mid-2020s. The generals have to be careful with the Chinese because many Thais see their own military shifting from protecting Thailand against foreign threats to becoming a partner with the largest regional threat as a means of keeping the unelected military government in power. In response to that the military still buys a lot of Western military gear and is enforcing rules mandating that senior army officers (battalion commanders and higher) take an English competency test to prove that their ability to read and speak English is still adequate. Most Thais feel safer with the distant, and reliable, United States as a military ally rather than neighbor China which has a long history of mistreating smaller neighbors.

August 16, 2017: In the south (Songkhla province, just north of the three Moslem provinces and also bordering Malaysia) police were quickly alerted after seven armed men stormed into a car dealership, kidnapped four employees and made off with five pickup trucks. The stolen trucks were taken to another location and the thieves began fitting them with explosives. The four captives realized they were going to be killed and two managed to escape. That enabled the police to find and seize three of the stolen trucks and disarm the bomb in one of them and captured one of the Islamic terrorists. A fourth truck exploded elsewhere and police are still searching for the remaining two trucks and Islamic terrorists. The police fear that the Islamic terrorists are still determined to carry out a car bomb attack and soon. This sort of activity is rare in Songkhla province but not unexpected. Only about 25 percent of the people in Songkhla are Moslems. Moreover they speak Thai rather than Malay and have not shown any support for Moslem separatism. Despite that police have warned since 2015 that some of the Islamic terrorists to the south have discussed carrying out attacks in nearby non-Moslem provinces. In this case the police alerted security forces further south, including Thai and Malaysian border guards, to watch for the last of these stolen pickup trucks and be careful with it as it may have a bomb installed.

August 12, 2017: A nationwide poll showed 60 percent of Thais were willing to tolerate the ban on political parties and did so mainly to end the political violence. Yet a majority also wanted elections and an end to the military dictatorship.

August 11, 2017: An army general and a senior police commander were among eight people accused of kidnapping a wealthy Thai businessman and trying to extort over half a million dollars from him. The government insists the two senior security forces officers will be prosecuted. The military government justifies its government takeover with promises to reduce corruption (among other things). But since the generals took control in 2014 evidence of corruption by military personnel have proliferated. Since they are running the government the military has control over a lot more spending than usual and it is having its normal (for Thailand) impact on many officers. The army does not want any publicity about this and insists military and police commanders will receive no special treatment if charged with corrupt acts. Since the military controls the local media it is difficult to tell if corrupt officers are quietly evading punishment.

August 9, 2017: The military government banned Peace TV, a Thai network, for one month because of July broadcasts where people called the current government a dictatorship and accused the military government of using real or imagined criticism of the king to jail government critics for lese majeste (saying anything disrespectful of the king). Thais has long tolerated very strict laws against lese majesty. Now the generals want to prosecute people because their PC or smart phone displayed a web page containing disrespectful (to the generals or the king) material. Peace TV, which is known to back pro-democracy (“red shirt”) groups has had similar bans in the past (April 2015 and July 2016). But because the military government has also been unable to control the Internet it cannot just shut down all electronic media. The generals found that despite threats made to FaceBook and Google to censor material the military found offensive it could not be done. This effort was prompted by the growing number of Thai Internet critics fleeing the country (to avoid arrest) and continuing to use social media (especially Facebook and YouTube) to share items critical of the military government. The military realizes that while the creators of this offending Internet material are beyond their reach most of those who view (or post comments on) this stuff are inside Thailand and available for arrest and punishment. While the major social network outlets have cooperated in removing what the military government declares “illegal” material there are many other ways such offending content can be distributed via the Internet and the major Internet firms refuse to attempt the impossible (police the Internet for Thai military). In response the military has looked into other solutions. This year the military revealed that they had obtained (apparently with Chinese help) the software and technical assistance required to implement identifying those Internet users in Thailand who are viewing the illegal material. This move is not surprising to Thais and if implemented will not make the military government any more popular nor will it keep the offending material from circulating. The Chinese censors don’t like to dwell on that fact.

August 1, 2017: In the south (Pattani) a roadside bomb was used to attack six local defense volunteers driving by. The blast killed two and wounded four. There were also several failed or fake attacks in the area.

July 23, 2017: In the south (Pattani) there were two shooting incidents that left two dead and one wounded. Police believe at least one incident was related to Islamic terrorist violence because the victim was a local defense volunteer.

July 20, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat) a group of men attacked a police checkpoint before dawn by throwing six pipe bombs. Four of the bombs exploded killing one policeman and wounding another. The police did not fire on the attackers because there were civilians in the way.

 

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