Thailand: The Countdown Begins

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November 2, 2017: A new government in the United States has adopted a different policy towards the military government, at least as long as the military holds elections and soon. Because of that pressure the generals now say elections will take place in a year and the U.S. has made it clear that failure to follow through with this will have serious consequences. Normally the U.S. reduces support to unelected government that replace elected ones. That’s what happened when the military took over again in 2014. It soon became obvious that the situation in Thailand was different. The United States has long (over half a century) been Thailand’s major military and diplomatic ally. Given that China is a growing regional military threat (but not so much to Thailand) the U.S. would be reluctant to continue military support for Thailand if Thailand had close military ties with China. The unspoken reason is American opposition to the military government and realization by the generals that they would need all the allies they could get once they hand power back to elected officials. The consensus is that it is better to have good relations with the Americans (who are pressing for new elections) than the Chinese (who are quite comfortable with a military dictatorship). Moreover a lot of Thais are uncomfortable with the growing military power and aggressiveness of China.

After 2014 the Thai military responded by still buying a lot of Western military gear and took steps like enforcing existing 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 was still adequate. Despite the diplomatic snubs the military government realizes that 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.

Another reason for the generals to do whatever they can to improve relations with the United States is the Thai economy. It was the American connection that made Thailand a popular (and profitable) place for American firms to set up Asian manufacturing operations. Thailand became one of the most prosperous nations in the region with per-capita GDP increasing tenfold from 1960 to 2016. Thais expect this to continue.

The army realized the economic problems could not be ignored. The GDP contracted 2.1 percent in the first three months of 2014 and that contraction and slow growth continued. Unemployment was still low but income was declining as were 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 pays attention to economic problems and it took a while to make it work. Initially accepting major investments from China did not have as much impact as hoped. Worse, the increased presence of the Chinese was not welcome. 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.

The Will Of The People

Thais expect any government, military or elected, to take care of the economy or face even more popular anger and violence. Frosty relations with U.S. and the West in general did not help so the generals have acted accordingly. Exports are up sharply (after four years of little or no growth) as is GDP. Tourism was way up in August, with a record (for August) 3.1 million visitors. This is important for the government because tourism currently accounts for 12 percent of GDP and security problems in tourist areas have been a problem since 2012. It’s not always terrorists. Tourism is a favorite target for gangsters because most targets are not well guarded and vulnerable to extortion (in return for protection from attacks.) Tourism is very sensitive to safety issues no matter what the source. Thus an August 2015 bombing in the capital led to a temporary 17 percent drop tourism. This came after the number of tourists visiting Thailand had doubled between 2010 and 2015. The target was a Hindu shrine (and popular tourist attraction) in Bangkok. At first it was believed to be the work of criminal gangs angry at a crackdown on their profitable people smuggling operations. Islamic terrorists did not claim credit for this one and no gang connection could be found. This attack did not appear to be the work of any of the usual suspects. The government admitted that those behind the bombing appeared intent on making the government look bad as well as hurting the economy (by scaring tourists away). That worked because the temple attack was the worst in Thai history leaving twenty people dead, eight of them foreign tourists. Over a hundred people were wounded. In August 2016 eleven small bombs were set off in the south on August 11th and 12th. Four people died and 34 were wounded, including ten European tourists. These attacks did less damage and were not in such a high-visibility location. There appears to be less negative impact on tourism because of that. The attacks on tourism did not continue and the negative impact on foreigners diminished. The August 2017 tourist numbers demonstrated this. If Thailand is safe for tourists foreign investors consider the area safe for major investments.

The government scored some visible success in addressing corruption and bureaucracy. Dealing with these issues was a major reason for the 2014 (and earlier) coups. The latest international surveys of such things showed Thailand making a lot of progress. The World Bank survey of 150 nations shows Thailand had moved 46th place to 26th in the last year when it came to making it easier to do business. Another recent international survey, of Global Competitiveness, ranked 137 countries on how well the local conditions (low corruption, economic freedom and opportunity and robust economy) facilitated the ability of that nation to compete in global markets. The top five were Switzerland, the United States, Singapore, Netherlands and Germany. Thailand was 32, China 27, Vietnam 55, Malaysia 23, Indonesia 36, India 40 and so on to the bottom five (Mauritania, Liberia, Chad, Mozambique and Yemen).

All this is not just self-defense by the military, the generals believe they can achieve their goal of fundamentally changing the nature of Thai democracy with the new 2016 constitution. That was a major reason why the generals agreed to national electrons by the end of 2018. The pro-democracy opposition is seen as less and less of an immediate threat and most Thais just want some peace and prosperity. But the generals and royalists realize that in the long term the pro-democracy movement will revive and will remember the current military effort to change the constitution to permanently grant the military more power.

The Troubled Prince

Another problem the military had to deal with was the new king, who had an unsavory reputation. Despite that, once his father died the new king was believed to have 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 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 a year ago and that presented a rare opportunity for the new king to gain more power for the monarchy. The generals need 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 earlier this year (April.)

This sort of behavior by the new king was not a sure thing. For nearly half a century the crown prince has been misbehaving and since the 1990s, with the arrival of cheaper digital photography and phone cameras, 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 was the popularity of the kings’ long-ruling father. The 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 king has 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 (to avoid a civil war) and Thais were expecting more of the same to avoid another one. But that beloved king Bhumibol died in October 2016 and his successor has much less moral authority.

The new king helped persuade the pro-democracy groups (which still have the majority of voters with them) to remain calm and they have. In late 2015 pro-democracy leader (and former prime minister) Thaksin Shinawatra called on his followers (the “red shirts”) to “play dead” for the moment and wait for the military government to allow elections. The military had agreed to elections in 2018 but only after some fundamental changes were made in the constitution. The problem is the new rules give the military permanent power and privileges that an elected government would have a difficult time (via changing the constitution) repealing. The red shirts are not pleased with all this but were persuaded.

Shinawatra pointed out to his followers that red shirt violence simply gave the military another excuse to hold onto power. The May 2014 coup came after months of political protests in the capital and those tensions remain. The new king and the generals recognize that most Thais are fed up with the coups. There have been twelve of them since a constitutional monarchy replaced the centuries old absolute monarchy after World War I. The royals have learned to keep their heads down, even though the military has always been staunchly royalist. The army and the new king believe they have solved this problem with “reforms” in the pre-coup constitution.

Pro-democracy Thais have also became more adept at dealing with coups, especially since the Internet and social media proved immune to army efforts to control Internet use. New ally China admitted that even when you employ an enormous Internet censorship bureaucracy and some very effective technology the unwelcome (for the government) messages still get through. Moreover sites like Facebook are tremendously popular in Thailand, by royalists and populists alike. Thus the army was forced to come out and say it would never shut down Facebook access in Thailand or seriously threaten Internet access. Pro-democracy groups organized flash mobs and similar actions to remind the generals and the foreign media that this crises was not over. While the red shirts have lots of popular support, most Thais are more interested in economic issues and the army at first was to deal with that because of widespread opposition to military rule in Thailand and abroad.

The king and armed forces believe they will still have more power even when the country is again run by an elected government. The democrats note that long-term the kings and dictators lose. Most royalists recognize that if the king becomes too unpopular the monarchy could be abolished, as it already has throughout the region. Actions have consequences.

The South Still Simmers

A negotiated end to the southern separatist and Islamic violence remains a possibility as the peace talks at least continue. There has been some interest among separatists for “safety zones” in the south. Lack of unity among the separatist groups means it is difficult to get agreement on the details. The basic idea is that security in the south would be supervised by representatives from separatists and the government and when this worked (neither side attacked) the safety zone would be expanded until it included all three southern provinces that were majority Moslem. The government could then expand economic development and infrastructure projects. Islamic terrorism and radicalism is no longer as much of an issue as it used to be. That particular cause is generally seen as counterproductive and lacks much local support.

A lot of the negotiations are an effort to create some trust. For example the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional) the oldest (founded in 1960) separatist group in the south as well as one of the largest has rejected the safety zone proposal. The main objection was the government refusal to allow foreign observers to monitor any peace agreement. BRN considers the Thai government an occupying force but the government refuses to accept that label. These attitudes are the main reason why it has been so difficult to get peace talks going at all, much less make any progress. The government openly blames disagreements among the southern separatist organizations for the difficulties in achieving a negotiated settlement.

Despite that the major separatist groups keep showing up to talk while the violence continues to decline. That is because despite all the separatist violence since 2004 the people in the south have little to show for it. Declining popular support for the violence, and increased government economic and military effort led to violence peaking in 2009 and declining ever since. In 2007 over 80 people a month were dying from the southern violence but by 2014 that was less than 20 a month and continuing to decline into 2017.

October 31, 2017: The military government refused to lift the ban on political activity, which was promised once the yearlong mourning period for the king was over. Despite evidence to the contrary the military government insisted order had not returned to the kingdom. The ban on political activity had been in place since the 2014 coup. This decision is awkward because the military government has promised national elections in 2018 and maintaining the ban on political activity even through there has been little unrest for more than a year indicates fear that a new elected government will seek to punish those who imposed the current military government.

October 22, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat province) a local man serving in the army was shot dead while visiting his sick mother. Local Islamic terrorists seeking to discourage locals from joining the security forces were considered responsible.

October 18, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat province) four armed men on two motorcycles ambushed two policemen on rural patrol duty and opened fire. They missed and the two policemen let their motorcycles hit the ground, took cover behind them and returned fire. The attackers were afraid the police had already called for backup and fled. Apparently no one was hurt.

October 15, 2017: In the south (Narathiwat province) a local separatist group used gunfire and a roadside bomb to attack police at night. The only casualty was a Malaysian man who was visiting family in the area. He was hit by one of the dozens of bullets fired at a police checkpoint and died later in the hospital. There have been few such attacks in the area and the outcome of this one will not encourage the separatists because the death of a civilian, especially someone related to a local, costs the separatists a lot of support for more violence.

October 13, 2017: The one year mourning period ended for the popular king Bhumibol, who died at 88 after a record 70 year reign. The final ceremonies generated some unrest but largely at local officials for poor planning. These ceremonies continued through October 29th without incident, except for a lot of criticism at the high cost of the events. The late king was known for his frugalness, his successor is not. Generally the military government has kept the new king on good behavior.

October 10, 2017: The military government announced that elections would take place in November 2018 with the exact date to be announced by June 2018. The military government has delayed elections several times by claiming unrest continued but that attitude is difficult to sustain when the opposition keeps pointing out that there has been no significant political violence for over two years and that was no coincidence. The opposition is willing to keep the peace if there will be elections.

October 9, 2017: The 28 Chinese VT4/MBT3000 tanks the army ordered in early 2016 arrived by ship. The tanks were delivered six months ahead of schedule and were in excellent condition. The VT4s also turned out to have all the latest updates for that model. The Chinese are trying to win over Thailand from decades of preferring Western weapons, even if the Western stuff costs a lot more than comparable (on paper) Russian or Chinese models. The VT4s are different. They are cheaper but they are also export models of the Type 98/99 tanks, the most modern China has. While the Type 98/99 is basically an improved Russian T-72 that sells for about $5.4 million each it is built to higher standards than was normal for Cold War era designs like the T-72. Even the export models have world class electronics and vehicle performance. If the army is satisfied with the VT4it wants to buy as many as 150.

 

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