Category Archives: Thailand

Three Past Outbreaks of Major Violence in Thailand

Hong Kong-based security consultant G. M. Greenwood offers some historical perspective on Thailand’s current turmoils in an article in the Asia Sentinel (19 May 2010) under the discouraging headline, Reconciliation or Retribution in Thailand: The odds are on retribution.

Thailand has experienced three major violent political upheavals in the 35 or so years before the present crisis began. All can be linked, and while each offers a differing insight into how the state has responded to being challenge, context makes them unreliable indicators of the country’s direction in the coming days and weeks.

  • On 13 October 1973, months of anti-government protests against the armed forces’ dominant role in government culminated in a huge demonstration in Bangkok. The following day troops attacked the protestors, killing at least 75 people and wounding hundreds of others. King Bhumibol directly intervened, superficial order was restored and the three politicians seen as largely responsible went into exile overseas.
  • On 5 October 1976, leftist students at Bangkok’s Thammasat University protesting against the killing of two students by rightists a few weeks earlier were attacked by well-organised militia personnel. The official death toll among the students, many of them the children of the elite, was 45 but hundreds more were widely believed to have subsequently murdered. Many fled into the bemused arms of the then revolutionary Communist Party of Thailand, whose fighting strength was drawn from the same northern rural communities that remain the hinterland of today’s reds. The subsequent anti-communist campaign by the Thai military was accompanied by a wave of extrajudicial killings that have been largely forgotten outside these communities.
  • Between 17 and 20 May 1992, at least 44 people were killed and hundreds injured when troops fired at demonstrators protesting against efforts to make a prime minister of a military leader who had seized power in a coup the previous year. In addition to acknowledged casualties, many of them drawn from the higher social classes, at least 100 people were presumed killed by the security forces after the immediate unrest. When containers were found on the seabed off the Sattahip naval base at the head of the Gulf of Thailand in 2009, there was widespread speculation that they might contain the remains of the missing of ‘Black May.’ The fact that they did not has not diminished the belief that the state is capable of killing its opponents.

These precedents, rather than vague talk of compromise and national unity, are likely to guide the actions of the Red Shirt activists and their countless thousands of supporters across the country as they prepare for the aftermath of the loss of their key redoubts in Bangkok. For them, any outcome to the crisis that erodes their present strength will be resisted.

The problem for Abhisit and his allies is as much cultural as political. While democratic institutions are developing roots across the region, the concept of ‘loyal opposition’ is still regarded as an oxymoron by many local politicians. It is within this context that an overly soft line against the Red Shirts will be interpreted by UDD activists, Abhisit’s opponents within government, the military and pro-establishment People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) Yellow Shirts as a sign of weakness rather than a display of pragmatism.

Nevertheless, an effort is likely to be made to re-emphasise the narrative that distinguishes the Red Shirt leadership from the ‘misguided misled.’ In this model, the red rank-and-file would be allowed – even helped – to return to their communities, accompanied by a chorus extolling their virtues as loyal but unwitting dupes of toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his clique.

via RealClearWorld

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Extraterritoriality for Everyone

From: Being “Dutch” in the Indies: A History of Creolisation and Empire, 1500–1920, by Ulbe Bosma and Remco Raben, tr. by Wendie Shaffer (National U. Singapore Press, 2008), pp. 4-5:

Segregation and extra-territoriality — the principle that foreign merchants were subject to their own laws — had many advantages. The local ruler had to negotiate with only a few representatives rather than each individual trader. Maintaining law and order — especially when it had to do with family and inheritance law — could be left to the internal authority of the immigrant community. And the advantages were all too clear for the foreign merchants: they were able to continue living under their own laws. “Legal pluralism” — that is, different groups falling under different legal systems and authorities — was characteristic of the fragmented power relations in the cities and states of South and Southeast Asia. The highest authority was the king, but he was not all-powerful. He had to deal with courtiers, regional governors, religious leaders and the representatives of foreign merchants. Each one of these had their own followers, their own servants and their own slaves who remained outsidethe reach of the central ruler.

The distribution of political power was reflected in urban space. In Ayutthaya large communities of foreign merchants lived in ban (villages or districts) situated just outside the city walls. At the close of the 17th century we find mention of communities from Gujarat (Hindustanis), Coromandel (Moors), Pegu, Malacca (Malays), Makassar, Cochin-China (Vietnamese), China, Japan, Portugal, France and the Netherlands. Each of these communities had its own headman; the large Chinese community even had two. However, although in theory the ethnic groups seemed juridically and spatially segregated, daily reality was somewhat more complicated than the above might suggest. Foreigners and their descendants were not prevented from gaining access to the Siamese community. The extensive “Portuguese” settlement — outside the city walls and facing the Dutch trading post — was peopled by “a Portuguese race descended from black women”; in other words, Mestizos, children with a Portuguese father and a Siamese mother. In other communities, too, there was considerable mixing between travellers from abroad and local women, again resulting in children of mixed parentage.

The mixing went beyond family relations; some foreigners even attained high-ranking posts at court. At the end of the 17th century, for instance, the royal guard of Ayutthaya was composed of a couple of hundred Persians, while for three successive generations the chief minister (chaopraya) came from a Persian family, only to be followed by a Greek. Other first ministers were of Indian, Chinese and Mon descent. The king of Siam also employed Englishmen — for instance, as harbour master. Evidently, the king preferred to employ foreigners in key positions, since they did not command a large band of followers who might pose a threat to the throne. But their difference stopped there. Nowhere do we find the suggestion that these families behaved as foreigners. On the contrary, it seems that they adapted themselves to the culture and customs of the Ayutthaya court. They married into Siamese families and ultimately became totally assimilated.

Along the coast of the Malay peninsula and in the Indonesian archipelago, the pattern of segregation and mediation was essentially no different from that in Siam. The city of Malacca, which during the 15th century thrived on the expanding international trade and attracted many foreigners, appointed four syahbandar (harbour masters) to maintain contacts between the local government and various trading communities, and also to administer justice and act as military commanders in times of war. The syahbandar appointed from the Gujaratis of northwest India was described by the Portuguese traveller Tome Pires as “the most important of them all”. Then there was a syahbandar for the merchants from Coromandel, Bengal, Pegu and Pasai (in north Sumatra); one for the foreigners from Java, the Moluccas, Banda, Palembang, Borneo and Luzon; and, finally, one for the Chinese and other traders from the East.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ayutthaya and Malacca were among the largest cities in Southeast Asia. Travellers from Europe estimated the population of these places to be as large as 200,000 — although in reality the number would have been closer to 10,000. But whatever the actual figure, there is no doubt that these were bustling emporiums, where a foreigner was not an uncommon sight. There was a prevailing pattern of segregation, but we cannot say with any accuracy how strictly this was applied.

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Cambodia’s Thirty Years War

From After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide, by Craig Etcheson (Texas Tech U. Press, 2006), pp. 2-4 (footnote references omitted):

It is an extraordinary situation. Cambodia is a country where as much as a third of the population died in one of the worst genocides of modern times, and many Cambodians do not believe it happened. How can it be that so much destruction occurred so recently, yet so few are aware of this history? In order to explain how this peculiar situation came about and perhaps to help to correct it, we must start at the beginning of the Thirty Years War.

That war began in 1968, when the Communist Party of Kampuchea—popularly known as the “Khmer Rouge”—declared armed struggle against the government of Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Over the course of this war, the conflict took many different forms, went through many phases, and involved a list of participants nearly as long as the roster of the membership of the United Nations. The country changed its name six times during the Thirty Years War, beginning as the Kingdom of Cambodia, changing to the Khmer Republic in 1970, Democratic Kampuchea in 1975, then the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1979, the State of Cambodia in 1989, and finally back to the Kingdom of Cambodia again in 1993. These contortions reflected the extraordinary violence of the underlying turmoil. Cambodia finally emerged from the Thirty Years War in 1999, with the capture of the last Khmer Rouge military leader still waging armed resistance.

The Thirty Years War wrought upon Cambodia a level of destruction that few nations have endured. At the epicenter of all this violence, from the beginning until the end, there was one constant, churning presence: the Khmer Rouge. Though they have now ceased to exist as a political or military organization, Cambodia continues to be haunted both by the influence of the individuals who constituted the Khmer Rouge and by the legacy of the tragedy they brought down on the country. The social, political, economic, and psychological devastation sown by the Khmer Rouge will take generations to heal, if indeed it ever can be healed. This epic saga of havoc is so complex and confusing that scholars do not even entirely agree on how to name all the ruin.

Many historians describe the conflicts in Southeast Asia during the second half of the twentieth century in terms of three Indochinese wars. The First Indochina War was the war of French decolonization in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, beginning in 1946 and ending with the Geneva Conference of 1954. The Second Indochina War can be said to have run from 1954 to 1975; it is typically known in the United States as the “Vietnam War” and in Vietnam as the “American War,” a dichotomy that reveals much about who was centrally involved. In this war of Vietnamese unification, as the United States attempted to prevent the consolidation of communist rule over all of Vietnam, the war also spread to engulf both Laos and Cambodia. The Third Indochina War began hard on the heels of the second, when from 1975 to 1991, the issue of who would rule Cambodia and how it would be ruled drew deadly interest from virtually every country in the region and from all the world’s major powers.

From 1968 onward, it appeared to many Cambodians that these wars flowed from one into the other, as inexorably as the Mekong River flows into the sea. The 1991–1993 United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cambodia marked the end of the Third Indochina War, but the fighting in Cambodia continued for nearly another decade afterward. The outlines of the conflict in Cambodia changed with the United Nations intervention, but the basic issue underlying the war—the Khmer Rouge drive for power—was not resolved by the peace process. Combat continued between the central government and the Khmer Rouge until the government finally prevailed in 1999. Thus, what historians characterize as distinct wars with distinct protagonists appeared to many Cambodians to be simply one long war, with one central protagonist—the Khmer Rouge—driving the entire conflict.

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Burma: Engagement Has Failed, Isolation Has Failed

I’ve posted a good bit about Burma since starting to blog almost four years ago, but I’ve been hesitant to post much now because I feel we are all little more than drive-by rubberneckers, turning our heads toward Burma just long enough to catch a glimpse of yet another passing segment in the endless video of disaster news that no one can really do much about—apart from finding a way to pin the blame on one’s favorite ideological demons, of course. Every disaster is good for blind partisans.

But a current article in Foreign Affairs seems to offer a useful retrospective on two opposing diplomatic dead-ends. Both engagement by its neighbors and isolation by more distant but powerful forces seem to have failed.

U.S. policy toward Burma is stuck. Since September 1988, the country has been run by a corrupt and repressive military junta (which renamed the country Myanmar). Soon after taking power, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as the junta was then called, placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party the National League for Democracy, under house arrest. In 1990, it allowed national elections but then ignored the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory and clung to power. Then, in the mid-1990s, amid a cresting wave of post-Cold War democratization and in response to international pressure, the SLORC released Suu Kyi. At the time, there was a sense within the country and abroad that change in Burma might be possible.

But this proved to be a false promise, and the international community could not agree on what to do next. Many Western governments, legislatures, and human rights organizations advocated applying pressure through diplomatic isolation and punitive economic sanctions. Burma’s neighbors, on the other hand, adopted a form of constructive engagement in the hope of enticing the SLORC to reform. The result was an uncoordinated array of often contradictory approaches. The United States limited its diplomatic contact with the SLORC and eventually imposed mandatory trade and investment restrictions on the regime. Europe became a vocal advocate for political reform. But most Asian states moved to expand trade, aid, and diplomatic engagement with the junta, most notably by granting Burma full membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.

A decade later, the verdict is in: neither sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle….

If ASEAN and Japan are critical components of any international approach to Burma, China and India could be the greatest obstacles to efforts to induce reform in the country. China has many interests in Burma. Over the past 15 years, it has developed deep political and economic relations with Burma, largely through billions of dollars in trade and investment and more than a billion dollars’ worth of weapons sales. It enjoys important military benefits, including access to ports and listening posts, which allow its armed forces to monitor naval and other military activities around the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea. To feed its insatiable appetite for energy, it also seeks preferential deals for access to Burma’s oil and gas reserves….

It will also be a challenge getting India on board. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trumpeting of democratic values, India has actually become more reticent when it comes to Burma in recent years. This is particularly regrettable considering that Congress was one of the Burmese democratic opposition’s strongest supporters during much of the 1990s and that Suu Kyi continues to cite Mohandas Gandhi as a model for nonviolent resistance. The change occurred during the past decade, after New Delhi detected that China’s political and military influence in Burma was filling the void left by the international community’s deliberate isolation of the junta. Like China, India is hungry for natural gas and other resources and is eager to build a road network through Burma that would expand its trade with ASEAN. As a result, it has attempted to match China step for step as an economic and military partner of the SPDC, providing tanks, light artillery, reconnaissance and patrol aircraft, and small arms; India is now Burma’s fourth-largest trading partner. Singh’s government has also fallen for the junta’s blackmail over cross-border drug and arms trafficking and has preferred to give it military and economic assistance rather than let Burma become a safe haven for insurgents active in India’s troubled northeastern region….

Given the differing perspectives and interests of these nations, a new multilateral initiative on Burma cannot be based on a single, uniform approach. Sanctions policies will need to coexist with various forms of engagement, and it will be necessary to coordinate all of these measures toward the common end of encouraging reform, reconciliation, and ultimately the return of democracy. To succeed, the region’s major players will need to work together.

Fat chance of that happening, I’m afraid.

As a gesture of mourning for the lives being sacrificed to ‘keep the peace’, I’ll retain one header image for the rest of the week. It’s a stupa-style memorial dedicated to Japanese war dead in Burma, which I came across in the massive Okunoin cemetery at Kōya-san, one of Japanese Buddhism’s holiest sites.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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Defeated Japanese Exiles in Siam, 1600s

After the American Civil War of 1861–65, many defeated Confederates resettled in Mexico or Brazil. Many defeated Japanese also found refuge in exile as Japan’s long period of warfare (Sengoku) drew to a close around 1600. Among the most successful of the exiles was young Yamada Nagamasa (山田長政 1590–1630).

Yamada Nagamasa lived in the Japanese quarters of Ayutthaya, home to another 1,500 Japanese inhabitants (some estimates run as high as 7,000). The community was called “Ban Yipun” in Thai, and was headed by a Japanese chief nominated by Thai authorities. It seems to have been a combination of traders, Christian converts who had fled their home country following the persecutions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, and unemployed former samurai who had been on the losing side at the battle of Sekigahara:

“From the years of Gen’na (1615-1624) through the later years of Kan’ei (1624-1644), the Ronin or warriors who lost their lords after the defeats of the battle of Osaka (1614-15) or the earlier battle of Sekigahara (1600), as well as the defeated Christians of the Shimabara uprising, went to settle in Siam in great numbers” …

The Christian community seems to have been in the hundreds, as described by Padre Antonio Francisco Cardim, who recounted having administered sacrament to around 400 Japanese Christians in 1627 in the Thai capital of Ayuthaya (“a 400 japoes christaos”) …

The Japanese colony was highly valued for its military expertise, and was organized under a “Department of Japanese Volunteers” (Krom Asa Yipun) by the Thai king.

In the space of fifteen years, Yamada Nagamasa rose from the low Thai nobility rank of khun to the senior of Okya, his title becoming Okya Senaphimuk. He became the head of the Japanese colony, and in this position supported the military campaigns of the Thai king Songtham, at the head of a Japanese army flying the Japanese flag. He fought successfully, and was finally nominated Lord of Ligor (modern Nakhon Si Thammarat), in the southern peninsula in 1630, accompanied by 300 samurai …

Following Yamada’s death in 1630, the new ruler and usurper king of Siam Prasat Thong (1630-1655) sent an army of 4000 soldiers to destroy the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya, but many Japanese managed to flee to Cambodia. A few years later in 1633, returnees from Indochina were able to re-establish the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya (300-400 Japanese) …

Nagamasa now rests in his hometown in the area of Otani. The remnants of the Japanese quarters in Ayutthuya are still visible to visitors, as well as a statue of Yamada in Siamese military uniform.

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The Thai Coup and the Jihadist Insurgency

The milblogger who authors The Adventures of Chester has compiled an interesting take on what the Thai military coup might portend for dealing with the jihadist insurgency in the south of Thailand.

News reports indicate that there were a number of reasons why Thailand’s military decided to overthrow Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last week, but the most interesting among them was a disappointment with his strategy toward the Muslim insurgency in the south. From The Australian:

THE Royal Thai Army will adopt new tactics against a militant Islamic uprising, following the coup that sent Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister, into exile in London last week.

According to sources briefed by the army high command, Mr Thaksin’s bungled response to the insurgency in southern Thailand, which has claimed 1700 lives in two years, was a critical factor in the generals’ decision to get rid of him.

Military intelligence officers intend to negotiate with separatists and to use psychological warfare to isolate the most violent extremists, in contrast to Mr Thaksin’s heavy-handed methods and harsh rhetoric….

When Mr Thaksin, a former policeman who made his fortune from telecommunications, came to power in 2001, he broke with the old order. He put police cronies in charge of the southern border and shut down two intelligence clearing centres.

Soon, reports in the media alleged that corruption, smuggling and racketeering were rife.

In January 2004, militants raided an armoury and started a killing spree. They have murdered Buddhist monks, teachers, hospital staff and civil servants – anyone seen as representing the Thai state. The army has seemed powerless to halt the chaos.

But at the same time Zachary Abuza, a political science professor at Simmons College in the US, and author of a forthcoming book about the Thai insurgency, offers a more nuanced take:

Will the CDR [Council for Democratic Reform] and interim administration be better equipped to deal with [it]? At the very least, there will be less political interference in counter-insurgent operations and fewer personnel reshuffles and policy initiatives from an impatient “CEO prime minister.” Second, the CDR is likely to implement many of the recommendations of the National Reconciliation Council that Thaksin had blatantly ignored. Though the NRC’s recommendations alone will not quell the insurgency, they will have an important impact in regaining the trust of the Muslim community. Third, [coup commander-in-chief Gen.] Sonthi [Boonyaratglin] has expressed a willingness to talk with insurgents, though to date only PULO has offered to talk and the aged leaders in Europe have no control over the insurgents. And many in the military establishment including Sonthi, himself a Muslim, have publicly refused to see the insurgency for what it is, denying it any religious overtones or secessionist goals. Nor is the political situation likely to alter the campaign of the insurgents. If anything they may step up attacks in an attempt to provoke a heavy-handed government response. The Muslim provinces have been under martial law for over two and a half years, with little to show for it but an alienated and angry populace.

UPDATE: The Head Heeb has a characteristically thorough and comparative analysis of what he headlines The Bertolt Brecht coup.

All this leads to some concern about what the new constitution might contain. Boonyaratglin has promised that it will make the government more accountable, which is a good thing on its face; the former constitutional framework allowed Thaksin to accrue far too much personal power and was often ineffective in providing institutional checks and balances. The trouble is that it isn’t clear who will hold future governments to account. If the early signs are any indication, the military may impose a paternalistic, royalist-praetorian constitution in which unelected oversight agencies and councils hold the balance of power and the army and the throne are the final arbiters of political acceptability. Thailand may come out looking, at least in the near term, like Turkey up to the 1980s or Fiji today.

The Thai coup, in other words, carries more than a hint of Bertolt Brecht’s “Solution – that, the people having forfeited the military’s confidence, Boonyaratglin decided to dissolve it and elect another. Granted, he is unlikely to do so as literally as Stalin did, but he has evidently concluded that the people – who, after all, elected Thaksin – can’t entirely be trusted with democracy for the time being. Therefore, politics will be banned until the people – or, more specifically, institutions like the legislature and media through which the people expresses its will – are reordered to the military’s satisfaction and the balance between representative and non-representative organs is adjusted. As in Turkey or Fiji, the military doesn’t intend to dissolve the people very often, but it will ensure that their institutions are established in such a way that they don’t risk losing their guardians’ confidence.

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Bhumibol vs. Thaksin in Thailand

Shawn W. Crispin at Asia Times Online sees the coup in Thailand as an effort by the royalists to take power back from Thaksin, who had waged a long battle to wrest power away from the constitutional monarchy and concentrate it in the executive branch.

The mainstream media have widely misinterpreted the potent but peaceful protests as being galvanized by the Thaksin family’s controversial US$1.9 billion tax-free sale of its 49% holdings in the Shin Corporation to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. To the contrary, the protests, which were later co-opted by various special-interest groups aligned against the government, were first galvanized and primarily sustained by the explosive claims first made by firebrand media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul that Thaksin was on particular occasions disloyal to the throne….

According to sources familiar with the matter, Thaksin had attempted to elevate Major-General Prin Suwanthat to commander of the 1st Army Division, which crucially is charged with overseeing security in Bangkok. Thaksin also reportedly pushed to promote Prin’s ally, Major-General Daopong Ratanasuwan, to take over the 1st Infantry. With assistant army commander Pornchai Kranlert in place, the reshuffle, if accomplished, would have given Thaksin an unbroken chain of command over crack troops responsible for Bangkok’s security.

Notably, without his allies in the top posts, Thaksin’s order from New York to impose a “severe state of emergency” and remove Sonthi from his position as army commander went unheeded.

Meanwhile, the military has promised to return power to the people as soon as possible, and judging by past royally orchestrated extra-constitutional interventions, it will honor that vow.

Thaksin’s ouster will pave the way for important democratic reforms, which under the military’s and monarchy’s watch will broadly aim to dilute the power of the executive branch, limit the power of large political parties, and strengthen the independent checking and balancing institutions that Thaksin stands accused of undermining.

via LaurenceJarvikOnline

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