The military government got an unexpected and much needed popularity boost when a small naval unit known unofficially as the Thai SEALs (after the American SEALs who helped organize the Thai SEALS in the 1950s) led a spectacular and successful rescue effort in a flooded cave system. Officially known as the Underwater Demolition Assault Unit of the Naval Special Warfare Command, the Thai SEALs are a small organization of about 140 personnel. The Thai SEALs coordinated and participated in an international effort to find and successfully rescue twelve young (11-16) students and their soccer coach that were trapped in a cave by a flash flood on June 23rd. This took place in the far north (Chiang Rai province) near the Burma border. The local army command had overall control of the rescue effort which included getting hundreds of support staff to the Tham Luang cave in the Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park. The forest and park are a tourist attraction for Thais and foreigners alike and because of that, there were roads reaching the cave entrance itself. But a lot of heavy equipment (especially generators and pumps) had to be brought in along with a steady supply of fuel and other expendables.
The search and rescue was handled by a force of over a hundred divers, many of them former military, including the one fatality, a 38-year-old former Thai SEAL who was still qualified to dive but ran into trouble while transporting air tanks underwater and died when his own air supply failed. Despite that one death (and a few injuries), the Thai military did an impressive job managing the 25-day long search and rescue operation. The last of the soccer team and their coach were out of the caves by July 10th and out of the hospital by July 18th, 16 days after they were found.
The Thai military government needs all the good news it can get because otherwise, most Thais would rather have their elected government back. Thais, in general, believe if an elected government were in charge they would have turned the search and rescue effort over to the military, and especially the Thai SEALS, who have long had a reputation for professionalism and effectiveness. Normally the Thai SEALs deal with coastal smugglers and Islamic terrorists as well any jobs where a navy ship needs someone trained to handle land combat or boarding a ship with potential hostiles (especially armed ones) present.
There is something of an international SEAL community because the number of combat divers has always been small and many know of each other by reputation or international training exercises. In situations like this SEALS from all over the world are sent to help, in addition to many civilian divers, many of them former military divers. Thus it was not surprising that the lost students and their coach were found by two British divers who were taking part in a systematic search of the cave system coordinated by the Thai SEALS and experts on the Tham Luang cave system. The British divers knew that one of the lost students spoke English and that was a big help as were the many foreign divers who made the search effort happen quickly and cover all likely areas where the students and coach might have taken refuge. Failing that the divers would seek out the bodies and retrieve them.
Many Thais were not surprised at how the military government censored news of the flooded cave rescue effort, blocking the reporting of anything that might reflect poorly on how the operation was being carried out. The successful rescue effort will boost the military governments’ approval ratings, which have been declining over the last year because of suspicions the ruling generals were going to delay elections again. The military government is now talking about delaying the planned February elections until May. At the same time, the military is ignoring complaints that the election is not entirely fair. Since 2014 the military government has used its dictatorial powers to get the constitution changed and give the military permanent political power. This will make it easier for the military to block actions (by elected leaders) that it does not like and make it much more difficult to change the constitution. While this might mean fewer military takeovers in the future it increases the possibility of a civil war to limit military and royal power for good. This threat was avoided in the 1930s by a fortuitous compromise. The current king and military leaders are not in a compromising mood.
There have been eleven military governments in the last four decades and 19 coups or attempts since 1932. The monarchy tended to remain neutral in these disputes but clearly favored democracy over a military dictatorship. The royal family, the Chakaris, was 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. That may be changing as the current military government is creating more problems than it is solving and Thais fear the new (since 2017) 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.
In October 2016 the 9th Chakari king Bhumibol died at 88 after a record 70-year reign. His successor made a deal with the military to expand royal power in exchange for not interfering with military efforts to obtain veto power. Most Thais believe king Bhumibol would have never tolerated this if only because it was his father that agreed to a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and established a very beneficial (for the monarchy and most Thais) new form of government. Back in 1932, the army persuaded the king to give up absolute power and avoid a civil war. Since then there has been a constitutional monarchy and the military has considered itself the guardian of the monarchy. But the monarchy did not encourage military government and the current one is trying to make it easier for coups to happen in the future. Most Thais are tired of coups and have demanded reforms to curb the ability of the military to take over. Trimming the power and influence of the military has not been easy and in early 2014 there was yet another military takeover “for the good of the country.” After 2014 the generals realized they had to destroy the ability of political parties to curb military and royal power. The majority of Thais oppose this effort to curb democracy. As long as this dispute remains unresolved the risk of civil war grows.
Separatists and Islamic terrorist violence continues to decline. Years of this decline in violence has allowed for an economic revival and living standards are visibly higher than they were a decade ago when the violence (which began in 2004) was near its peak. The declining violence has led to progress in peace talks. Earlier in 2018 the government and separatists agreed on the first safety zone (the Cho Airong district in Narathiwat province) and that is now operational. 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.
July 19, 2018: In central Thailand (Samut Prakan Province) police raided a location used by drug smugglers and arrested two of the smugglers and seized 8.4 million yaba (methamphetamine) tablets, 121 kg (266 pounds) of Ice (Crystal Methamphetamine) and 25 kg (55 pounds) of Ketamine. The drugs were smuggled from Burma, where the unruly tribal areas are the main source of illegal drugs for East Asia.
July 18, 2018: The Navy has agreed to spend $5.7 million to design a midget submarine of up to 300 tons. The prototype would cost $30 million. These subs will have a crew of ten and a range of about 500 kilometers. These subs may never be built because the design phase will take four years and building the prototype another two years. This project appears more about giving the navy the capability to design submarines using Thai military and civilian personnel.
July 15, 2018: When accidents happen the results are often fatal and that is doing major damage to the Thai tourist resorts in the south. Ten days ago two boats carrying 127 tourists capsized off the island resort of Phuket and left 47 Chinese tourists dead. Chinese tourists comprise a growing portion of the three million tourists who visit Phuket each year and as a result of this accident, several thousand Chinese canceled their plans to visit Phuket. Total cancellations could cost Phuket resorts over a billion dollars in business this year as total tourist visits may decline from 11 million to 10 million before the situation improves.
The cancellations were made worse as the Thai government shifted blame to the Chinese company that was operating the boats. The crews were Chinese and all but two of the tourists were Chinese. This did not play well in China. But the Chinese government noted that there was indeed a problem with Chinese establishing Thailand based businesses in the areas frequented by Chinese tourists and often breaking Chinese and Thai laws along the way. While denouncing Thailand publically the Chinese officials quietly conferred with their Thai counterparts to deal with the Chinese tourism businesses that were causing problems. This sort of thing is happening in most areas now favored by Chinese tourists. There are more of these tourists since the 1990s as millions more Chinese enter the middle class and can afford to travel abroad.
July 4, 2018: Cambodia completed reconstruction of the rail line from the capital to the Thai border. This railroad had been built before World War II by the French colonial government but was destroyed in 1973 after years of fighting in the area. It took 45 years for peace to return, reconstruction to be completed and the government to negotiate a renewal of cross-border rail traffic with Thailand.
July 2, 2018: In the south (Yala province) a Buddhist rubber plantation worker lost a foot when he stepped on a landmine planted by Islamic terrorists to disrupt plantation operations and put the plantation out of business (because it was not owned by Moslems and employed a lot of non-Moslems). Since late June two other Buddhist rubber plantation workers were wounded by these locally made mines. The Islamic terrorists want to drive all non-Moslems out of the three southernmost Moslem majority provinces but most non-Moslems refuse to leave.
June 23, 2018: In the north twelve young (11-16) students and their football (soccer) coach disappeared after flash flood trapped them in a cave. This triggered an international effort, coordinated by the Thai Navy and their SEALs, to find, and if possible rescue the soccer players and their 25-year-old coach.
June 21, 2018: In the south (Narathiwat province) police arrested a man who had just crossed the border from Malaysia and in a pickup truck. The police found 41 small (half kg/1.1 pound) bombs that could be used with a timer, detonated remotely or thrown as a grenade. There were timers and remote control devices in the truck as well. The bombs had been made in Malaysia. A second man in the truck fled on foot and was arrested later because his passport fell out of a bag he was carrying as he ran away. The bombs were intended for use against the security forces. The truck, it turned out, had used a smuggler route to avoid border inspection.
June 20, 2018: In the south (Narathiwat province) a known terrorist leader was cornered by police and killed in a gun battle when he refused to surrender.