Thailand: His Majesty Is Amused

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September 11, 2019: The animosity between monarchists and democrats is growing more intense. The new king, the former unpopular playboy crown prince, is turning into an unpopular king who is seeking more control over the military and more money for his increasingly (compared to his popular father) lavish lifestyle. The monarchist generals have adopted a new term for the democrats; nation haters. This interprets opposition to the military and monarchy as disloyalty to Thailand. At the same time, the military is losing its majority in parliament. The problem is corruption and the inability of the generals to find out to effectively bribe demanding members of parliament who are seeking more compensation for their cooperation. The democrats still have the support of a majority of Thais and based on social media activity and member counts, that majority is growing and becoming angrier and less patient.

Despite the playboy lifestyle, the new king had a lot of experience in the military as a young man. He attended the Australian Military Academy and served in the Thai army and air force during the 1970s. He learned to fly helicopters, transports and jet fighters and remained a big fan of the military. A really big fan. His wife had served in the crown prince’s bodyguard and had to successfully endure the same training as the other male and female bodyguards. The king eventually made his queen an army general. Same thing with his newly invested official concubine. He also made his pet dog an air force general. The new king is taking a more active role in how the military is run and who is promoted. If there is another military takeover the king will be more involved than any Thai king has been in nearly a century.

Bad Royals

The military and the new king are making it more likely that the democratic opposition will eventually 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. Unlike his predecessor, the new king already had an unsavory reputation as a playboy crown prince. 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, after a fashion. 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 need 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 in non-Thai media and 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 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 on October 2016 and his successor has much less moral authority. Those who have called for the elimination of the monarchy in the past are no longer a tiny minority but rapidly expanding to become a majority.

The new king helped persuade the pro-democracy groups (which still have the majority of voters with them) to remain calm and they have. In late 2015 pro-democracy leader (and former prime minister) Thaksin Shinawatra called on his followers (the “red shirts”) to “play dead” for the moment and wait for the military government to allow elections. The military had agreed to elections in 2018 but only after some fundamental changes were made in the constitution. The problem was that the new rules give the military permanent power and privileges that an elected government would have a difficult time (via changing the constitution) repealing. The red shirts are not pleased with all this but were persuaded, despite more delays. March elections were promised at the end of 2018 but so were a host of new laws that make democracy much less democratic.

Shinawatra pointed out to his followers that redshirt violence simply gave the military another excuse to hold onto power. The May 2014 coup came after months of political protests in the capital and those tensions remain. The new king and the generals recognize that most Thais are fed up with the coups. There have been twelve of them since a constitutional monarchy replaced the centuries-old absolute monarchy after World War I. The royals have learned to keep their heads down, even though the military has always been staunchly royalist. The army and the new king believe they have solved this problem with “reforms” in the pre-coup constitution.

Pro-democracy Thais have also become more adept at dealing with coups, especially since the Internet and social media proved immune to army efforts to control Internet use. New ally China admitted that even when you employ an enormous Internet censorship bureaucracy and some very effective technology the unwelcome (for the government) messages still get through. Moreover, sites like Facebook are tremendously popular in Thailand, for royalists and democrats alike. Thus the army was forced to come out and say it would never shut down Facebook access in Thailand or seriously threaten Internet access. Pro-democracy groups organized flash mobs and similar actions to remind the generals and the foreign media that this crisis was not over. While the redshirts have lots of popular support, most Thais are more interested in economic issues and the army at first was to deal with that because of widespread opposition to military rule in Thailand and abroad.

The king and armed forces believe they will still have more power even when the country is again run by an elected government. The democrats note that long-term the kings and dictators lose. Most royalists recognize that if the king becomes too unpopular the monarchy could be abolished, as it already has throughout the region. Actions have consequences.

A Win In The Drug Wars

Increased efforts to control drug and people smuggling along the Burma and Malaysia borders have persuaded Burmese drug producers to switch to Vietnam as their main export route. Thai soldiers and police have been intercepting more drug smugglers from Burma, even the ones who are armed and willing to use violence to get past the border. In the south border guards checking cargoes of trucks headed for Malaysia have been finding more and more methamphetamine from Burma and headed for Malaysia. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") locally, most of it had long been smuggled out of northern Burma via Thailand and Malaysia. Vietnam is not as convenient for getting the yaba to more distant markets but it is seen as a lot safer than Thailand and Malaysia.

A Loss In the Border Wars

At its peak a decade ago Thailand had over half a million tribal refugees from the numerous tribal rebellions in neighboring Burma, living in Thai refugee camps. Since democracy returned to Burma in 2011 most of these refugees have returned home. But renewed violence in the Burmese tribal areas up north and along the Thai border have resulted in at least 100,000 refugees still living in seven camps and refusing to return to Burma. More of these tribal refugees are arriving in Thailand. The problem is most of the foreign aid donors have stopped contributing, in the belief that the refugee problem here was over. Many of these refugees do not want to go back, would like to become Thai citizens but the Thais don’t want them.

September 10, 2019: Thailand announced generous tax concessions and other assistance to companies considering moving operations, usually manufacturing, out of China. The American trade war with China has a lot of other nations in East Asia encouraging the U.S. because Chinese trade practices with everyone have been questionable legally and ethically. Thailand has long been a popular location for manufacturing high-tech items. An educated population and good infrastructure make Thailand an attractive alternate location for foreign firms moving out of China. Plus, many Thais like to irk China at any opportunity.

September 5, 2019: The new king is asking parliament for a larger (by 13 percent) annual budget to run the monarchy. The new request is for $251 million and includes major new investments in palace security and luxury living. The new king has already quadrupled the size of his personal security force to 1,600. His father was immensely popular and never had need of that much security. The son is different. The royal assets are considerable (more than $30 billion) but parliament still pays for royal protection and palace security.

August 29, 2019: The first two of the 60 Stryker armored vehicles the army ordered earlier in the year were flown in by the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. and many Thais are eager to maintain the close military ties Thailand and the Americans have long had. China has been trying to replace the U.S. as the primary supplier of military equipment and economic investment. That did not work. The army is buying 60 American 8x8 V-hull Stryker wheeled armored combat vehicles. Thailand is paying $2.55 million each for 37 of the vehicles but the other 23 will be provided free as part of American military assistance. The first of these vehicles were promised by the end of 2019. The Thai military is seeking to maintain its relationships with its long-time military ally while also developing similar relationships with China. Most Thais prefer the Americans to the Chinese but the military needs an alternative source of equipment and military cooperation in case its plans for the long-term military-dominated rule in Thailand leads to an anti-military revolution. Moreover, many Thai generals don’t trust the Chinese as much as they do the Americans.

August 27, 2019: The government announced that it would pay compensation to the family of a 34 year old Moslem man who was arrested July 20th for questioning but was sent to a hospital and declared dead the next day. The army admitted the suspect was healthy when they brought him in for questioning but cannot document what happened to the victim because vidcams at the interrogation center were not working. This has caused more unrest in the south and the government is eager to deal with that. The investigation of the dead man has been accelerated and if he was innocent a large cash compensation will be paid and an apology made.

August 23, 2019: The government extended the state of emergency in the Moslem south for another three months. The government has been doing this since 2005. This gives the police and army additional powers of search and arrest. The south has been quiet this year, partly because the military has demonstrated that its control of the government is not going to be eliminated by another election. Separatist groups in the south are reconsidering their options while the small number of Islamic terrorists find that they have little local support and are hunted by a large and expert military force. The state of emergency will be up for renewal again in early December.

 

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