Attacks, Insurgency, and a Military Takeover in Modern Day Thailand
Thailand is a warm, tropical country situated south of China on the Asian mainland, home to a wide range of vegetation and animal life. From an outside perspective, it is a veritable paradise, but on the inside it is far from perfect. This reality was brought to light last May when a military coup ousted the sitting government, and again last month when a bombing at a major shrine in Bangkok shook the country.
Lately, Thailand has been turning from its traditional allies in the west to those that more closely mirror its new authoritarian government, like China. This shift comes at a critical time for Thailand; its economy has stagnated and many of the issues that it has worked hard to overcome–like border conflicts and its central role in the sex trade–have persisted. Read on to learn about the recent challenges facing in Thailand, stemming from its history to where the country is heading now.
History of Thailand
From as early as the 7th century, Thailand has been populated with a variety of people. Up until the 18th century, Thailand was ruled by several competing monarchies. Beginning in the early 19th century, the country began to modernize along European lines while still maintaining its monarchy. This seemingly culminated in its support of the British in WWI.
Thailand’s allegiance briefly changed in WWII when it joined with the Japanese, but after Japan’s defeat Thailand returned the territory that it took from its neighbors and once again allied with the west. In fact, it served as a base for U.S. operations during the Vietnam War. Domestically, Thailand was also going through a rash of changes spurred by a string of protests, coups, and conflicts.
Thailand’s Current Government
In a military coup last May, the elected legislature was forced from power and the military took over. After ousting the government, the military junta imposed martial law, lasting for nearly a year. Military coups are nothing new for Thailand, however, between 1932 and 1991 there were at least 17 different coups. The video below details the most recent military takeover:
Following the coup, and even after lifting martial law, the situation has not improved much. The military junta granted itself new, all-encompassing powers assuming formal control of the government. The junta originally justified its control as a way to avoid violence between the existing government and protesters. But as the military has increased and prolonged its rule many are growing skeptical of its desire to hold elections and give up control. Controversy arose recently when the military junta rejected a draft constitution, which extended its control over the government into next year.
In August, a large explosion occurred at the Erawan Shrine, one of the most popular shrines in Thailand–killing 22 people and injuring 120. The Erawan Shrine is located in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.
In the aftermath of the attack, two men have been arrested, while as many as seven more suspects remain free. So far, the government does not suspect a connection between the attack and international terror organizations, but the motive behind the bombing remains unknown. While the two men in custody have been charged with illegally possessing explosive materials, authorities do not consider them the masterminds behind the bombing.
While the recent bombing garnered a lot of attention in the capital, most of the violence in Thailand has historically occurred in the south, where insurgents fight for territory. The insurgency has plagued the country’s southernmost regions for over a decade, killing nearly 6,400 and wounding nearly 11,000 people. The unrest is the result of a struggle between the Malay Muslims–who demand local autonomy after attempts to incorporate with the rest of Thailand failed–and the Thai government, which refuses to give up land. The rebels fear assimilation and the loss of their culture, which has been an issue since the area was incorporated into Thailand in 1909. While the territory has been a point of contention since 1948, recent violence did not emerge until 2004–coinciding with the election of an unpopular Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. In addition to their fear of cultural assimilation, the rebels’ other grievances relate to poor access to education and high rates of poverty.
The conflict has persisted largely due to the government’s inability to find rebels to negotiate with, as the movement is largely decentralized. Even more so, it is the result of the government refusing to make any concessions while attempting to downplay the issue altogether. The new military government has vowed to take a tougher stance–pledging to end the conflict within 12 months, but also does not plan to make concessions to the insurgents.
The following video explains the insurgency in southern Thailand:
Another long-standing issue for Thailand is sex trafficking. The country is one of the world’s most notorious centers for sex trafficking. Although exact numbers are difficult to determine, estimates indicate that there are tens of thousands of victims. A recent State Department report gave Thailand a third tier rating for its response to human trafficking issues, the lowest rating possible. Due to its location, local corruption, and the government’s reluctance to intervene, Thailand has become a regional hub for sex trafficking.
Prior to the military coup, Thailand made some efforts to crack down on the sex trade. In 2008, it passed the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act which made it illegal to traffic in any persons. Additionally in 2011 the government passed its second six-year national policy strategy aimed at eliminating trafficking. Despite these efforts as well as further collaboration with international organizations and NGOs, trafficking remains a major problem. While the military government has made some attempts to crack down on trafficking, critics argue that these efforts have done very little to address the underlying problem.
Thailand’s Place in the World
Thailand’s domestic issues are only compounded by the country’s increasingly unclear place in the world.
As a result of the military coup in 2014, relations between Thailand and its traditional partner, the United States, have become strained. Evidence of this can be seen in the negative reactions from the United States and its EU allies in response to the military’s increasing authority. Directly after the coup, the United States suspended military aid, as is required by U.S. law after a coup, as well as ceased joint military exercises and aid. The accompanying video depicts Thai-US relations:
To fill the gap left by the United States, China has stepped in. Initially, this was through a deal in which Thailand would buy submarines from China in an effort to arm itself in relation to its increasingly armed Asian neighbors. The relationship has expanded as Chinese diplomats began visiting the nation, and talks of a railroad connecting the two nations are currently in progress. Thailand also recently deported more than a hundred Uighurs to China, which the United Nations and several human rights groups condemned. Uighurs, a minority in China, face repression and possibly torture at home.
Thailand’s relationship with China is not only important as the countries grow closer militarily, but also because China is Thailand’s number one trading partner. Thailand needs China to buy its goods, for which it shows support for the regime in Beijing. So far Thailand has delivered–supporting initiatives like the Maritime Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, both of which are headed by China.
Trade is important to Thailand because, like many economies in Southeast Asia, Thailand is overly reliant on exports for growth. In fact, exports make up more than half of its GDP, making it the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia behind Indonesia. The rest of its production comes through a variety of industries including tourism, agriculture, and fishing.
Although Thailand has one of the largest economies in the region, it has not shown much growth lately. In 2014, its GDP grew by only 0.7 percent and may actually contract this year. The exact cause of Thailand’s economic woes is difficult to trace, but most believe the recent coup and the resulting uncertainty have not helped. The recent attack on the Erawan Shrine could also damage Thailand’s economy–particularly in terms of tourism, which has accounted for a significant portion of its economic growth lately. While these fears may be legitimate, the government maintains that last month’s bombing will not affect the tourism industry.
As economic uncertainty mounts, Thailand continues to align itself with countries like China and Russia in order to maintain trade relationships as its connection with the West becomes increasingly strained.
Thailand’s most notable border dispute is with Cambodia, which is centered on the Prear Vihear Temple. A ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962 originally awarded the area to Cambodia. However, the decision has left Thailand unsatisfied and led to a three-year conflict from 2008 to 2011. The conflict ended with a new decision by the ICJ in 2011, which gave control of the temple to Cambodia, but left much of the surrounding area undetermined. Currently, both countries are in talks to create a solution for the remaining land, but little progress has been made.
Another dispute, between Thailand and Malaysia, was largely settled decades ago. However, control over Bukit Jeli, a stretch of land on the border between both countries, remains unsettled. Despite the lack of agreement, a conflict between the two countries remains unlikely. Some believe that a similar agreement, or lack thereof, could be applied the situation with Cambodia.
Thailand is home to an ancient civilization and the country was one of few never to be colonized by Europeans. But, the recent coup and the military junta’s expansion of power are beginning to reveal the many issues facing the country. Given issues with sex trafficking, border disputes, and an insurgency in the south, Thailand’s domestic troubles may also affect its position in Southeast Asia.
So what does all this mean going forward? If Thailand continues with its military-controlled government, which looks likely, it may also continue to alienate its old allies such as the United States. Subsequently these decisions push Thailand further into the orbit of countries like China who have their own authoritarian governments. While this may not be what the people of Thailand want, the importance of China as a trade partner leaves few options for the country.
All this is subject to change if the government gives up power or is deposed, and when you look at its history another coup in Thailand is certainly possible. However, the growing concentration of power among military leaders reduces the likelihood power will change hands. As long as the military stays in control the situation is likely to remain while social issues–such as unrest, border disputes, and sex-trafficking–go unaddressed.