Despite covid19 and the related recession there is still widespread willingness to risk injury and arrest to protest the continued military control over the government. Most Thais back the effort to reform the constitution and remove the changes made while the last military government was in charge. The royalists and military leaders are concerned about all this because the pro-democracy movement has the support of a growing majority of voters and nothing the royalists or army does has been able to reduce or suppress the extent of the opposition.
This “ pro-democracy movement ” is also seeking to take away powers and privileges the king does retain or recently revived. Th e existence and revival of royal powers is opposed by many Thais, but so is the misbehavior of the new king, who has openly collaborated with the military, even when the military has taken control of the government. To make matters worse the king has been living in the German Alps for most of 2020 to avoid covid19 and his growing unpopularity back home. Thais living in Europe eventually got organized and now hold regular anti- monarchy protests near where the king is living .
Another source of increasing popular anger and mass protests is the degree of censorship the military has sought to impose on the Internet. In addition to the traditional lese majeste (criticizing the monarchy) laws , criticism of the military or spreading information the military decides is “fake” is not tolerated. Punishments are severe and that tends to persuade many activist opponents to leave Thailand. While these exiles can still speak online, it’s not as effective when done from exile. Nevertheless, Internet based activities have become a key asset for the pro-democracy majority.
One reason for continued open opposition is that social media sites like Facebook are tremendously popular in Thailand, for royalists and democrats alike. The army was forced to come out and say it would never shut down Facebook access in Thailand or seriously threaten Internet access. Early on pro-democracy groups made the most of their Internet access by organizing flash mobs and similar actions to remind the generals and the foreign media that the opposition was not going away.
What the military fears most is the protests growing to the point where the royalists and pro-military politicians call for troops to clear the streets and restore order. The generals know that at that point the loyalty of many troops will be questionable. Opinion surveys and comments from NCOs and junior officers confirm this. The military does not want a civil war, which would be very destructive and the royalists would probably lose.
On The Plus Side
The only bright spot for the military is the growing decline of separatist and Islamic terrorist violence in the Moslem south. The violence started in 2004 and nearly all of it took place in the three Moslem majority provinces nearest to Malaysia. In the last 16 years there were nearly 17,000 violent incidents. About a quarter of them involved firearms, about 20 percent used bombs and nearly ten percent were arson. There have been about 4,100 deaths with 65 percent of the victims were local civilians, 24 percent soldiers and police officers, three percent were teachers and clerics while two percent were terrorists with six percent local defense volunteers. The violence has been declining steadily since 2010 and the army has been withdrawing soldiers each year as they are replaced by local defense violence. The army still has a visible presence in the south but most of the actual policing is handled by local police and armed defense volunteers.
Another reason for the decline of separatist violence in the Moslem south is that the main separatist groups are too divided by what demands to make and settle for. As a result, there is often no one for the government to negotiate with. In the last few years the dead or captured terrorists have included far fewer young men and opinion polls confirm that the separatist cause is less popular with young and that means fewer join, or remain in, the terrorist groups. There are fewer attacks and less violence in general down south and most of the population prefers that.
December 15, 2020: 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 exceptionally quiet this year, partly because of the economic and social changes imposed by the covid19 panic. 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.
December 14, 2020: Protestors who have been gathering in the capital since last May to demand government reforms declared they would take a holiday break and return after New Year’s celebrations. These protests escalated in September when an unusually large anti-government demonstration featured a replacement of a memorial plaque commemorating the 1932 introduction of democracy in Thailand, with the king as ceremonial head-of-state. The original plaque mysteriously disappeared in 2017, along with several similar items, and the army was suspected. This time a new plaque was set in freshly poured cement. The plaque was inscribed with a message commemorating the 1932 introduction of democracy. There was an additional inscription, “This country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch.” As expected, the police removed the new plaque and went to arrest those responsible. The demonstrations continued, growing larger each month.
There have been smaller demonstrations elsewhere in the country, especially near major universities. These demos often concentrate on one subject, like eliminating lese majeste laws as well as the large Chinese infrastructure projects allowed in Thailand.
December 11, 2020: The covid19 recession hurt the economy less than expected. Current estimates are for GDP decline to be less than expected at about seven percent for 2020. GDP growth is already underway. Homelessness and unemployment increased during the year and that swelled the numbers at the anti-government demonstrations. It was feared that this covid19 recession might take a while to recover because t ourism, and related activity, is normally about 20 percent of the Thai economy and there were indications that many tourists would be reluctant to return. That does not appear to be the case because tourists are returning, led by the many Chinese who have become the mainstay of tourist traffic. Exports of manufactured goods are already increasing. The unemployment rate peaked at over 20 percent, which was catastrophic for a country that usually has an unemployment rate of one percent or less. Particularly hard hit is the south, which depends a lot on tourism and where the less educated majority Moslem population always had a higher unemployment rate. The government has eases economic restrictions and let people get back to work. GDP growth in 2021 is now forecast at four to five percent.
December 7, 2020: In the south (Pattani province) a police commander was murdered by two gunmen riding a motorcycle and disguised as women.
November 24, 2020: In the south, just across the Malaysia border, a Malaysian paramilitary policeman was shot dead by gunmen who are believed to be armed smugglers from both sides of the border. Another policeman was wounded and able to provide useful information that led to the roundup of 52 local suspects and a request for Thai police to take three of their own citizens into custody. This is a common occurrence and these are the same gangs that are also involved in some of the separatist violence in the three Moslem majority Thai provinces near the Malaysian border.