Thailand: General Reconsideration

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April 23, 2018: It has long been feared that the years of Islamic terrorist violence in the south would lead to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) establishing a presence in southern Thailand. That has long been feared because of some ISIL activity in neighboring Malaysia and major outbreaks in the Philippines and Burma. So far there has been no ISIL activity in Thailand and the outbreaks in nearby nations have been put down. Malaysia had reported that one of the known ISIL members that were being south in Malaysia was a Thai Moslem who apparently hoped to establish an ISIL operation in Thailand. So far, nothing has happened in Malaysia or Thailand except individuals reported as trying to get something going but not actually doing so.

Generals Versus Reality

The military government has now put off elections until 2019 and is seeking to find more ways to change the political system to maintain political power for the military and the monarchy no matter who is elected. An anti-coup demonstration in late March seems to provide a reason to further delay elections. Meanwhile, the generals have to deal with more immediate economic problems.

Although GDP growth is expected to hit 4.1 percent in 2018 the economy still seems is stuck with GDP growth between 3.6 and 4 percent. Elections are expected by 2019, which may be just in time for the generals. Paying attention to what people want wins elections, not just ordering people to do what some generals and their cronies think is best. Eventually, the coup must end or face the risk of a nationwide insurrection. As with past coups, there will be elections and the generals want to ensure that a vindictive elected government doesn’t get power and seek revenge. The most obvious potential error the generals made was changing the constitution to give the military more power permanently. The other damaging policy was depending on China (for weapons and investment) despite the knowledge that such an approach drives away traditional (Western) business partners. The continuing decline in their ratings indicate a failure to deal with these problems.

Another obstacle is the fact that most Thais prefer to maintain the alliance with the United States rather than do more business with China. It was the American connection that made Thailand a popular (and profitable) place for Western (especially American) firms to set up Asian manufacturing operations since the 1960s. 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 but instead Thai GDP growth has fallen behind all of the neighbors since the 2014 coup. The army realized the economic problems could not be ignored. Unemployment is still low but income was declining as are opportunities for getting better jobs. As far as the economy goes everyone else in the region is doing better and the military cannot hide that or explain it away.

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 suffers when it fails here. Accepting major investments from China did not help 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 American government has now accepted that the military government may be around for a while and has changed its foreign policy to maintain the long-term links the two countries have while continuing to pressure the generals to allow elections and democracy. Even the Thai generals have come to realize that getting too close to China is not beneficial for Thailand, or the military, in the long run.

Peace Talk Safe Zones

The government and separatists have agreed on the first safety zone. It will be the Cho Airong district in Narathiwat province and is expected to be operational by May. The separatists believe that district is quiet enough so that there won’t be a confrontation between the peace negotiators and hardcore Islamic terrorists or separatists. This agreement comes after nearly five years of peace talks, which have largely been held in Malaysia between Thailand and southern separatists willing to negotiate. Since 2017 there have been efforts to find one or more districts in one of the three southern provinces where the safety zone concept could be tried out. This would serve as a pilot test to settle disagreements over the safety zone concept. Until now lack of unity among the separatist groups made it difficult to get agreement on any peace deal 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 refused 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.

April 20, 2018: While Chinese political influence is not popular in Thailand, online services are another matter. The Chinese Alibaba Group has signed deals which allows it to operate in Thailand. Alibaba has been one of the most successful Internet based businesses in China, mainly because it has provided the same services developed and delivered in the United States by eBay, Amazon and other online firms. Alibaba succeeded in China because its managers understood how to do business in a country run by often corrupt officials of a communist police state. Currently, Thailand has a similar situation and the military government is allowing Alibaba in because they understand this Chinese firm will stay out of politics and just deliver the goods (and any data the Thai generals need to stay in power).

April 19, 2018: Police have released Awae Wae-Eya, a Thai man wanted by Malaysia for questioning about pro-ISIL activities. Police recently arrested the Thai suspect in the south, where they were also looking for three other Malaysian men wanted by Malaysia for pro-ISIL activities. Thai police did a background check on Awae and questioned him extensively. Police concluded that Awae had discussed and supported ISIL on the Internet but was not connected with any actual ISIL operatives. For that reason, they did not extradite Awae to Malaysia, where he is wanted for questioning, not any specific crime. Thai police believe Awae and his Malaysian associates were seeking to raise money for themselves while pretending to do it for ISIL activities. The four had not gotten that far yet because the Malaysian police detected their activities and decided to be on the safe side and issue arrest warrants for the four self-described ISIL fans so the four could be questioned.

April 16, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) six gunmen ambushed a police vehicle that was carrying policemen who had been providing security for a school. Two policemen were killed. This attack was believed part of an effort by local Islamic terrorists to intimidate the police and local security volunteers, especially those that are Moslem.

April 11, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) a police patrol encountered three men who, when approached, opened fire and tried to flee. One man got away on a motorbike but the other two died after a gun battle. These two were identified as known members of RKK (Runda Kumpulan Kecil) a known separatist group. One of the dead men was a RKK leaders.

April 9, 2018: In the south border guards checking cargoes of trucks headed for Malaysia found 125 kg (275 pounds) of methamphetamine from Burma and headed for Malaysia. This seizure was worth about $4 million when sold to users. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it is smuggled out via Thailand. The truck driver was paid a thousand dollars to deliver the hidden cargo to someone in Malaysia.

April 8, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) local Islamic terrorists ambushed and killed a popular local defense volunteer.

April 5, 2018: In the south (Narathiwat province) a policeman was ambushed and killed by local Islamic terrorists.

April 4, 2018: The air force announced that the first four (of 12) South Korean T-50 jet trainers it had ordered had entered service. Another eight were ordered in July 2017 for $33 million each. This followed a 2015 order for four at about $28 million each. The T-50 can also operate as a ground attack aircraft. The first four aircraft were delivered on schedule in early January. The first order included an option to buy twenty more. The T-50 is used for advanced training of pilots for the Jas-39 and F-16 fighters used by the air force.

April 3, 2018: In the south, an army investigation has found massive fraud in some schools, with much of the stolen money going to Islamic terrorist and separatist groups. In Pattani province alone some $22 million was stolen in the last year. Corruption in the south is quite common but it was a shock to see the extent of it in some schools. Most parents in the south support a good education for their children and it was complaints from some parents that triggered the army investigation. Some of the schools hardest hit by the theft were also used as hiding places for weapons and bomb making materials. Some of the worst corruption was in religious schools, where traditional subjects (math and such) are often skipped and replaced with religious subjects.

March 28, 2018: In the south border guards checking cargoes of trucks headed for Malaysia found 700 kg (1,540 pounds) of methamphetamine. The drugs were hidden under hundreds of melons and were worth about $22 million when sold to users. Malaysia has found that most of the methamphetamine coming in from Thailand is shipped to other nations in the region, but some of the meth stays in Malaysia where it is becoming a problem.

 

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