Thailand: A Concubine Too Far

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August 16, 2019: The new military government is off to a rough start as it lost two votes in parliament even though it has a majority. That may be attributed to the fact that this government is run by the same army generals that seized control in 2014. The only difference is that the generals are now retired and then appointed to the senate (per the new constitution) and thus eligible to be cabinet members. Some of these retired officers are having problems getting to parliament when their vote is needed. The army has some civilian allies and many of these men are in the new parliament. But this is the first parliament in five years with an opposition and the opposition is very active.

The 36 cabinet ministries are filled out with a few politicians willing to work with the military-dominated government. The key ministries went to former generals while some of the choice economic ones went to influential politicians the generals needed to get and keep a majority in parliament. Based on past performance, the cabinet of generals is not expected to be any less corrupt than the ones the generals said they would eliminate when they took over in 2014. It was surprising that these retired officers were also undisciplined such that the government lost twice when some failed to  show up for votes in parliament.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha led the military government since 2014 and is now prime minister. Winning the elections was made possible by outlawing the Pheu Thai party and it’s charismatic (and very wealthy) businessman founder Thaksin Shinawatra. The military and royalists feared and despised Shinawatra, who was a successful entrepreneur and populist politician. Shinawatra and his supporters are still feared, as are any outspoken critics of the government. Many of these have been arrested, a few have disappeared and are feared dead. More are fleeing the country when they sense (accurately or not) that the military agents are closing in.

The continuing opposition to the new government explains why generals needed all the political advantages they had obtained, by changing the constitution, to get a parliamentary majority. The March elections made it clear that continued military rule was not popular. Two-thirds of the votes were for pro-democracy candidates although the pro-military PPP (Palang Pracharath Party) ended up with the largest share of the votes for a single party. PPP was the party created to perpetuate military influence in the government. This status as the single largest bloc of parliament members in one party gave the PPP the ability to form a new government in coalition with some of the smaller parties.

The PPP was aided by changes the military made to government institutions during their five years in power as unelected rulers. For example, the Election Commission (EC) is supposed to be independent and able to deal fairly with disputes over election procedures and accusations of corruption. Before the recent elections, the EC demonstrated that it had been corrupted by the military and actively supported efforts by the military to rig the vote and suppress criticism. For the military and royalists, this is considered a success but historians and most Thais see it as proof that Thai democracy is in trouble and the military was the cause not the solution.

The military prepared for the possibility of pro-democracy parties getting a majority in parliament and, in theory, control of the government. The generals could not risk that actually happening and changed the constitution to make it more difficult for a government to form without at least a military faction. That’s because to form a government you need a majority of the combined 500 member parliament and the new 250 member senate whose members are not elected but appointed by the current government, which for the first five-year term of the new senate means all members will be selected by the generals. After that, if the military can maintain control over those appointed senate seats they have a lock on controlling or having a decisive role in any future government. The only sure way a non-military government can be formed is by gaining control of 376 seats (76 percent) in parliament. Before the military changed the rules a majority in parliament was sufficient to form a government. But now those 250 appointed senators have a decisive vote on forming new governments.

The majority of Thais oppose this new system but the current military government is seeking to maintain power indefinitely while pretending to be a democracy and despite what most Thais want. While this makes the military leadership feel more secure it is an inherently unstable situation with the pro-democracy Thais perpetually angry at the rigged system. Another source of popular anger is the degree of censorship the military has sought to impose on the Internet. In addition to the traditional lese majeste (banning criticizing the monarchy) laws, now so iscriticism of the military or spreading information the military decides is “fake.” Punishments are severe and that tends to persuade many activist opponents to leave Thailand. While these exiles can still speak out it’s not the same when done from outside Thailand.

Hollow Victory

The generals feel their prospects are good because they now have the resources to regularly rig elections and prosecute any pro-democracy leaders who complain. The military will stress that because the economy is doing well it is unwise to switch governments. Thailand has had the fastest growing economy in the region and is in the best economic shape in six years. But the rate of growth is declining and by mid-2019 the GDP growth rate had sunk to 2.4 percent. Earlier in the year, this had been 2.8 percent. In late 2018 there were forecasts for 2019 GDP growth of between three and four percent. Economists point out that since the military took over in 2014 the economic fundamentals have changed for the worse. Now there are fears that the unrest in Hong Kong, which is a key economic component for the regional economy, might lead to another regional or global recession. The Hong Kong stock exchange is the fifth largest in the world and Hong Kong financial services are key elements in the economic success of China and most of East Asia. For Thailand, the economic angle appears to be less of a factor than the military hoped. It turns out that there was no way to make the pro-military politicians attractive to voters. The exit polls after the March elections showed that the democrats had won in a big way. But after the military appointed election bureaucrats got finished that democratic majority had been reduced to a more manageable size and the generals were still in charge. This may turn out to be an expensive victory for the military and the royalists.

August 2, 2019: Six small bombs went off in the capital, wounding four people. Small bombs, set off in public locations at times they are unlikely to kill anyone, are often used in Thailand as a form of protest against political or business rivals. The explosions today were apparently intent on embarrassing the new government, especially since the American secretary of state and similar officials from other countries were in town for a security conference. After about a week investigators identified ten suspects, all of them from separatist groups in the south.

The main separatist group is the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional). This is the oldest (founded in 1960) separatist group in the south as well as one of the largest. BRN had rejected the army safety zone proposal that would have experimented with some autonomy in the south, along with a ceasefire by all concerned. The main BRN 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.

July 28, 2019: The new king did something unusual, he conducted a ceremony not seen since the 1930s as he officially recognized his mistress as a royal concubine (literally a “royal noble consort”). The new consort was an army nurse when she met the crown prince and later became part of his bodyguard. As is customary the queen (since a May marriage) sat next to the king during the brief ceremony. The queen was also a long-time girlfriend. The king met her when she was a flight attendant. The 67 year old king spent most of his life as a playboy crown prince. This was in sharp contrast to his father. Royalists fear the behavior of the new king will do permanent damage to the monarchy. This is just one more problem the military has created. Now there is the possibility that the next political opposition movement will call for the elimination of the monarchy. This was not really possible until the current king took power and made it clear he was different and not in a good way. Unlike his predecessor, the new king already had an unsavory reputation. To make matters worse the new king 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, the 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 in 2016 and that presented a rare opportunity for the new king to gain more power for the monarchy. The generals needed 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 in early 2017.

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 former crown prince and the 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 old king had 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. Those who have called for the elimination of democracy in the past are no longer a tiny minority but rapidly expanding to become a majority.

July 23, 2019: In the south (Pattani Province), BRN separatists were believed responsible for an attack on an army outpost that left four soldiers dead and three wounded. The attackers stole five M16 rifles. In response to this unusual (for 2019) violence, the army ordered 10,000 troops to reinforce the army presence in the 188 villages in the south (out of 1,988) where there was most frequently separatist or Islamic terrorist activity. Some of these villages already have a dozen or more soldiers assigned to them and the reinforcements are organized into 735 smaller units of about a dozen troops who will be assigned to the 188 villages according to perceived need (in establishing more checkpoints or more frequent patrols).

The village garrison began earlier in the year when several hundred soldiers were selected for special training and assignments that would station small groups of them in remote villages down south. There the soldiers would literally live with the villagers and provide local protection against any form of lawlessness. At the same time, these troops would keep the local military and police commanders informed about whatever the troops discovered about Islamic terrorists or separatists operating in the area, or who had been doing so in the past.

This is a risky experiment because the BRN has found that it has factions of fighters who believe attacks on civilians are not counter-productive because they embarrass the military, whether the military runs the government or not. These radical factions seem unconcerned that killing civilians turns more southern Moslems against BRN and the goal of a separatist state. These radical factions would consider small groups of soldiers living in rural villages as ideal targets. This was taken into account and the rural village teams are being assigned to areas that are not in the vicinity of any of these radical factions. The new reinforcements will put many troops in villages with long and strong links to BRN.

 

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