Now the military hints that the long-awaited elections may take place on February 24, 2019, if some unspecified details can be worked out with a few of the political parties. The military took power in 2014 and are reluctant to give it up but the usual cycle of growing public opposition to a military dictatorship is developing. The generals have to step back or face a rebellion. The generals are quietly trying to assist the campaigns of candidates less hostile to the military.
Military rule did not bring with it many benefits. Although the generals took power in part to “deal with the corruption” it soon became apparent that once in power many senior military officers were eventually revealed to be as corrupt as elections officials. Even when there was good news the military tended to handle it ineptly. Many Thais were not surprised at how the military government censored news of the July flooded cave rescue effort, blocking the reporting of anything that might reflect poorly on how the operation was being carried out. One embarrassing item was that only one of the trapped students spoke English (useful because the trapped students were found by a pair of British divers) was a refugee who was not a Thai citizen. In Thailand, there are over half a million tribal refugees from the numerous tribal rebellions in neighboring Burma. These people do not want to go back, would like to become Thai citizens but the Thais don’t want them. It turned out that the 24 year old coach and three of the 12 young football (soccer) players were not citizens. In early August the military government granted all four citizenship.
The successful rescue effort boosted 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 popularity boost didn’t last, especially some military government officials began talking about delaying the planned February elections until May. The generals quickly backed away from that.
At the same time the military is ignoring complaints that the election process they are using 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 believed to have been taken care of in the 1930s by a fortuitous compromise. The current king and military leaders are not in a compromising mood like they were nearly a century ago.
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, an unpopular crown prince, 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.
The Malay Problem
The separatist/Islamic terrorist violence in the south continues to decline but efforts to achieve a permanent fix for the resentment of a Moslem majority population in the three southern provinces remains out of reach. This is all mainly about cultural differences (religion, ethnicity). Thailand has few (about three million) Moslems and while some of the separatist Moslems in the south (where most live) have tried to link their independence efforts to religion, it’s mostly about ethnic differences because 95 percent of Thais are ethnic Tai and the southern Moslems are nearly all ethnic Malays. The "terrorists" are a combination of Islamic radicals, Malay nationalists and gangsters (smuggling has long been a big business down there). The ethnic Thai majority refused (as they usually do) to back down in the face of Malay Moslem violence. After years of futile violence the Moslem minority became increasingly hostile to the Islamic terrorists, and more frequently cooperating with the police. This happened gradually as it became obvious that the Thai government was never going to give in. As a result of this, the militants turned on the Moslem civilians, which was a downward spiral that is gradually destroying the remaining popular support they have. That led to the current decline in violence. There are a few violent individuals operating together as a gang. If one of these gangs is active they will account for most or all the “terrorist” violence in the south. The police and military go after these gangs as soon as they appear and several of them have responded to the investigations, and locals providing tips, by going inactive and either eventually disbanding or staying until the police attention subsides. At the moment the gangs are losing and even ones that have “gone silent” are being found and arrested or killed.
There are other problems. The Moslem fanatics are hostile to secular education while most Moslems in the three provinces want their children to get a secular education because that is obviously the key to a better life for the kids. Moslem majority Malaysia next door encourages secular education and Moslem Malaysians have done well as a result. Because of the lack of education, the southern Thai Moslems have been unable to make the most of over two decades of dramatic economic growth in Thailand. For over a decade the Thai government (elected and military) has concentrated on education and economic development in the south while also improving security. Progress has been made but it has been slow, as these changes usually are.
August 21, 2018: North of the capital police made their largest drug seizure ever, arresting three men (all Thais) and hauling away 14 million methamphetamine pills worth $45 million when on the street. This shipment, apparently from Burma, was headed for Malaysia and possibly Indonesia as well. Thailand and Malaysia are well aware that they are part of a smuggling route that gets these drugs to locals as well as people throughout Southeast Asia.
August 20, 2018: Economic growth is better than expected. It was 4.6 percent during the first quarter and 4.5 percent in the second quarter. Thus estimates for all of 2018 have been increased from four to 4.3 percent. The military government paid attention to the economy because they had noted that earlier military governments often had trouble keeping economic growth going and that is one thing all Thais get anxious about.
August 16, 2018: In the south (Yala province) police, acting on a tip, raided a rural home and five men surrendered while another two opened fire and were killed. Those who surrendered had some weapons and all seven turned out to have arrest warrants outstanding for a 2017 attack on a checkpoint.
August 11, 2018: In the south (Narathiwat province) a mother and her teenage daughter were shot dead by men on a motorcycle. The two victims were riding on a motorcycle and the attackers were believed to be Islamic terrorists or separatists seeking to intimidate civilians into not cooperating with police.
In nearby Pattani province a soldier was killed in an ambush.
August 8, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) a civilian was shot and wounded in a village. This attack was attributed to a local separatist group.
August 7, 2018: In the south (Pattani province) two defense volunteers ambushed (apparently by Islamic terrorists) and killed on a rural road.
July 29, 2018: The army received the last of the 49 T-84 tanks that had been ordered from Ukraine in 2011. Delivery was supposed to be in 2015 but was delayed because Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Thailand did not cancel the order, although some similar tanks were ordered from China in the meantime and arrived in 2017. The T-84s cost $4.9 million each.