Thailand: Impunity Imperiled

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February 22, 2018: The military government confirmed that it is taking a soft approach to the growing number of illegal (according to strict rules imposed by the military) demonstrations against military rule and policies the military has implemented. The government warned that it would still go after those who are financing protests but the fact is (and the generals know it) that nearly all the protests are carried out by Thais doing it out of conviction, not because someone is paying them.

These demonstrations are not the only problem for the unpopular government. A recent survey showed most Thais believe corruption had gotten worse since 2014 coup. One of the main reasons the military took over the government was to deal with corruption and according to most Thais they have not done so. The survey showed Thais believe corruption is getting worse despite all the claims by the military that they have reduced corruption. Worse, the economy got worse after the military coup and four years later GDP growth in Thailand is the lowest in the region and the military is blamed.

To make matters worse several generals in the government are accused of corruption (because of obvious wealth that cannot be explained) and, as Thai generals usually do, the accused are acting like they are untouchable and waiting for all the media attention to go away. That has worked for many generations, but that was before cell phones and the Internet. Political power no longer guarantees control of local media. Note that all the coups since the 1930s have ended when the generals realized there were limits to their power and sense of impunity. That is happening again and the military is trying to prepare for another reversion to an elected government followed byyears of elected officials trying to curb the power and sense of impunity among the generals.

Slave Trade Survives

In the south the locals continue to complain, without much impact, about the continued use of slavery by fishing companies. Men from Bangladesh and Burma are recruited for jobs in Thailand but, once they arrived, were forced to first work for nothing to pay for their transportation and the recruiting fee. This form of debt slavery is a common scam in the region, especially in remote areas where it will not be noticed. This sort of thing is illegal in Thailand, but police don’t do anything unless a violation is reported. The persistent poverty in Burma and Bangladesh has led to an increase in this sort of people smuggling to Thailand, which has been the economic powerhouse in the region and a magnet for millions seeking jobs. The smugglers charge a lot of money, and those smuggled (also illegal) in then become slaves for years until the fees are paid off. Sometimes the “slaves” are offered paying jobs once their debts are paid off but the system tends to keep the slaves in debt for life. In Thailand these debt slaves are common on rubber plantations as well as aboard fishing boats.

China Requests

Last November there was a jail break in the south (Songkhla province, just north of the three Moslem provinces and also bordering Malaysia). Twenty Chinese Uighurs who had been arrested for illegally entering Thailand escaped from a migrant detention center near the Malaysian border. Within a week six were recaptured, one of them across the border in Malaysia. China demanded that the six recaptured Uighurs be returned to China but the escaped Uighurs all denied they were Chinese and popular opinion in Thailand (especially the Moslem south) is against automatically sending illegal migrants in Thailand back to China. Few of these Uighurs migrants have had anything to do with Islamic terrorism and ignoring that when China demands automatic expulsion back to China of Uighurs is seen as Thailand surrendering to Chinese bullying. That sort of thing is very unpopular. Nevertheless there have been some Uighur involvement in Islamic terrorism.

But now China is pressuring Malaysia (a Moslem majority country) to return eleven of these Uighurs that Malaysian police arrested. Both Malaysia and Thailand have agreements with China to extradite criminal suspects but the problem here is the eleven Uighurs are apparently not criminals in China, although they broke local laws by illegally entering Thailand and then Malaysia. In the last few years the military government in Thailand has been quick to return Uighurs who made it to Thailand (usually on their way to Malaysia). While the Thai generals are not Moslem and dependent on China the Malaysian politicians are Moslem and rather more hostile to Chinese demands. This stalemate remain unresolved as China pressures Malaysia and Malaysia insists there is no pressure.

February 16, 2018: Someone posted a video on the Internet showing sixty Bangkok policemen from four different stations lining up to receive cash bribes in red envelopes from the owner of an illegal gambling operation. The red envelopes are in honor of the Lunar (Chinese) New Year celebration, which is a traditional time to give gifts to faithful servants. Several days later the police announced an investigation of corruption in the Bangkok police. Police officials also ordered an investigation into who took the video and posted it. A week earlier the national police issued a warning to police commanders to make sure there were no such “New Year Red Envelope” bribes, which ethnic Chinese gangsters are fond of.

The Burmese army commander-in-chief visited and the Thai military arranged for the Burmese general to a high royal honor (medal); the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. This good will gesture was appreciated by the Burmese general, who is under criticism by the Moslem world and the UN for the way the Burmese has been handling their Moslem Royhinga minority. Thailand continues having problems with the drug trade in neighboring Burma, where the northern tribes fight to resist government efforts to suppress the drug production. Because of this the leaders of both countries try to cooperate in controlling and containing this drug trade.

February 15, 2018: In the south (Yala province) Islamic terrorists used a roadside bomb to attack a school. This resulted in three students, three local defense volunteers and four civilian bystanders wounded. This is the fourth such attack on schools in the south this year.

The navy received five more M21 patrol boats. This comes after four M21 patrol boats were received in September and the first three entered service in 2013. Fourteen have been received or are on order so far and these 21 meter (65 foot) boats are the backbone of the naval patrol force the navy is updating to control smuggling and poaching in coastal waters. The M21s carry a crew of nine, can stay out for 24 hours at a time and are armed with a 20mm autocannon, 12.7mm machine-gun and 81mm mortar.

February 14, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) police disarmed a bike with a time bomb installed in a water bottle. Two more bike bombs went off on the 11th but caused few injuries. Two others were found and disarmed.

February 13, 2018: The United States has improved joint defense cooperation with Thailand in the last year. This cooperation had diminished after the 2014 coup but this year the U.S., alarmed at the growing presence of Chinese military influence in Thailand (and unease among most Thai military leaders over the Chinese efforts) improved ties with the Thai military. A tangible example of that was the arrival of 6,800 American troops (twice as many as 2017) for the annual Cobra Gold joint military exercise. This year 29 nations will send troops to participate or observe. Since 1982 Thai and American troops have held Cobra Gold each year. Usually the event are held in Thailand and over the years has come to include troops from other countries in the region. In 2014 Cobra Gold included Chinese troops for the first time. China was invited to watch. There were only 17 Chinese troops in attendance, but it was a big deal because China’s neighbors would rather be training with Chinese troops than confronting them. Many believe the Chinese are just there to take notes on how more experienced and better regarded troops do what they do. Two months after the 2014 Cobra Gold exercise the Thai military staged their coup.

In the south (Narathiwat province) two men were shot dead for unknown reasons.

February 11, 2018: The military is trying a new approach to eliminating the separatist violence in the south. In effect it is offering men identified as key leaders of the separatist groups and offer them amnesty and substantial economic rewards if they renounce the separatist violence.

February 10, 2018: Prominent pro-democracy advocates led a demonstration in the capital demanding that the military government hold elections as they have been promising but regularly postponing. The pro-democracy leaders were not arrested because of the illegal demonstration (all demonstrations are now illegal without military permission) and within the week the military filed a formal complaint against seven of the protest leaders. The military charged the protest leaders of threatening public order, which the military sought to deal with in 2014 when they ousted an elected government. There was a similar demonstration in January and over thirty of those demonstrating were arrested. Some of these were protesting again today. And later announced they were organizing a schedule of regular protests until democracy returns.

February 7, 2018: In Malaysia peace talks between Thailand and southern separatists resumed and made progress by agreeing to establish one “safety zone” in the south as a pilot test to settle disagreements over the concept. Until now lack of unity among the separatist groups made it 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 had long 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.

February 6, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) two separate incidents in the last two days have left two Moslem village leaders dead. It is unclear if this is local politics, gang feuds or Islamic terrorist/separatist related. All three tend to get mixed up in the south.

January 25, 2018: In the central Thailand (Samut Prakan Province) a tip from locals led police to raid a warehouse where they found a Chinese lumber smuggling operation. Five Thais were arrested and later two Chinese while a third Chinese citizen is being sought. The warehouse was used to process rosewood logs and box them up to be smuggled to China where this rare lumber is highly valued. There were fifteen tons of rosewood (logs and planks) in the warehouse, all illegally cut down in Thailand and Cambodia and apparently getting past customs inspection while leaving Thailand. Police are looking into that. This sort of illegal lumber business is unpopular in Thailand because it is all about China destroying rare Thai rosewood trees and smuggling the lumber back to China. This sort of thing takes place all over Southeast Asia and is one reason why China is hated, and feared.

January 22, 2018: In the northeast (Nakhon Phanom Province) Thai Navy patrol boats on the Mekong River noted some suspicious activity with a boat crossing from Laos to Thailand. Police inspected the boat and found 11 million methamphetamine tablets from Burma. This was the largest seizure of this stuff from Laos ever, and this batch was worth over $100 million when sold to users. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it is smuggled out via Thailand but doing so via Laos and Thailand is something new. Since 2010 production of yaba tablets has soared in northern Burma. The meth labs are easier to conceal than poppy fields and the meth labs are believed to produce several hundred million tablets a year. But only as long as they can get the industrial chemicals required to make meth. The tribal rebels, especially ethnic Chinese tribes (like the Wa, who apparently produced the seized tablets) use the profits to buy more weapons for their fighters, and run their rebel organizations. Since 2016 India has sought to shut down the illegal chemical smuggling. China is also trying to shut down the corruption that enables drug gangs to bribe chemical shipments past border security. Burma knows it is the center of all this illicit drug activity and has been more willing to cooperate with neighbors to curb the problem. Despite efforts in Burma and China to shut down the yaba production and smuggling the drug continues to get produced and smuggled to customers in China and throughout East Asia.

In the south (Yala Province) a bomb set off in a market killed three and wounded 22.

January 19, 2018: In the south (Narathiwat) the widow of a village leader killed by Islamic terrorists in 2015 was herself shot dead in a similar fashion.

 

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