Thailand is a country with big differences. The Thailand displayed at tourist resorts are different from the parts of the country that does not live on tourism. The country's history has been marked by coups and political contradictions. There has been a conflict for the past ten years in southern Thailand, a conflict that takes lives of people every week.
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has not been a European colony. In the area which today constitutes Thailand, a powerful kingdom called Ayutthaya, grew and developed between the years 1350 and 1767 with a base north of what today is the capital city of Bangkok. In the outskirts of this kingdom, there were smaller kingdoms that had some certain autonomy, and in the mountains and along the coast, the people had only limited contact with the center.
Several wars were fought with neighboring kings of Burma and Angkor (in present-day Cambodia). After the Burmese conquered Ayutthaya in 1767, a general fled south to Bangkok, where he crowned himself king and gave the country the name Siam.
In the 1800s, the kings of Siam built the country's military with the help of Britain and France. They also succeeded to prevent the country from being colonized by accepting both French and English merchants to shop freely in Siam. In the mean time, while keeping well with the European powers, they spent significant amount of resources to modernize the military.
The military's political role
While nationalism was on the rise in Europe and Japan during the early 1900s, the military felt that they had a duty to guard the country's interests.
The military took the power in 1932 in a bloodless coup. They changed the name of the country to Thailand and ruled that the areas in northeastern Myanmar, northwestern Laos, western Cambodia, and northern Malaysia belonged to Kingdom of Thailand.
During World War II, Thailand entered in alliance with Japan and attacked the areas that they believed belonged to the Kingdom of Thailand. These areas were then British and French colonies. Towards the end of the war, the Prime Minister of Thailand resigned and Thailand began instead to cooperate with Britain, France and the United States.
Since then, Thailand has been working closely with the US and they fought in Korea, Vietnam and Laos as an ally of the United States. Thailand also sent a few soldiers to Iraq during the US invasion in 2003.
The military's interference in the politics continued in the next 50 years. Its role in politics was strengthened because they carried out coups to influence policy on a regular basis. This was done primarily through changes to the constitution, but also by other legal measures that guaranteed the military a major role in the Thai political system.
Civil war against the Communist Party
One of the main reasons why the military used to defend its strong position was that they had to defend Thailand against a communist threat. Many of the independence movements against colonial powers who grew up in the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia were led by people who wanted to impose a socialist regime.
The leaders of the communist countries of the region, such as China and North Vietnam, also wanted to encourage the revolution in other countries. At the same time the US offered help, both financial and material, to virtually everyone who fought against communism.
The last communist rebels ended their armed struggle in 1989 when Thailand, Malaysia and the communists signed a peace treaty. By then the communist had fought the government for nearly 30 years. Thailand continued to have many soldiers in the areas where the fighting had been going on, both in the southern provinces and in some northern regions.
About the same time as the communist rebels began to grow into a bigger threat in the 1960s, demands arose that the military would have less political influence. As Thailand's economy improved, the military's position of power was questioned and demands for greater democracy was expressed by the people.
In the year 1968, the military decided that political parties would be allowed back in, while they formed their own party.
Demonstrations in Bangkok
In 1973 the opposition organized - many of them students - large demonstrations with over 250 000 participants for greater democracy. The military responded by shooting 75 protesters to death.
Free elections were held in 1975, but it did not lead to stability. Political activists from both left and right organized strikes and demonstrations. The military began organizing extremist paramilitary groups and the atmosphere was very threatening.
Students in Bangkok organized large protests that the paramilitaries attacked in October 1976. The event is called "the massacre in Bangkok" where unarmed students were beaten, tortured and killed inside a central campus. At least 43 people lost their lives that day, but it is suspected that there were many more.
This massacre, which occurred only a few years after that 75 protesters were shot to death, was served as evidence that the Thai political system needed to change.
Red and yellow shirts
During the years 2008 to 2010, Thailand was hit by several momentous political crisis which degenerated into violent protests, focused in the capital Bangkok.
In August 2008, many parts of Bangkok were besieged, including the airport, by the yellow shirt demonstrators. The protesters managed to force early elections which were won by the Democratic Party.
At the beginning of April 2010, Bangkok was hit again by violent demonstrations. This time it was red shirt followers of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who showed their dissatisfaction with the current political situation. These demonstrations degenerated and by the time the situation after weeks of unrest and clashes had improved, 88 people were killed and over 1800 were injured.
Another coup was carried out in 2014, when the democratically elected government was deposed by the military (see "Thailand Today" below).
These clashes have often been between yellow and red shirts - the colors symbolizing the party one supports - is constantly under the surface of the Thai political system.
The rebels in Patani
In southern Thailand there is an area known as Patani. It is an ancient kingdom that got divided when the borders of Thailand was determined. Patani is now located in Thailand and other parts of Malaysia.
Ever since the area became part of the Kingdom of Siam, people have been displeased to be controlled from Bangkok. The residents of Patani feel a greater affinity with Malaysia because they often speak Malay and are muslims.
Armed groups of Patani
In the early 1960s, several organizations were founded through armed battle because they wanted to seperate Patani from Thailand. The targets varied, some of the groups fought for an independent Patani, while others primarily fought to make the province a part of Malaysia.
The more religiously influenced opponents of the Thai regime became stronger in the mid-1990s when a group of men returned to Patani from Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, they had fought with the islamic Mujahideen Movement who fought against the Soviet invasion attempt in Afghanistan.
In 2001, some attacks took place in the area, but they consisted mainly of bombs that blew up in the middle of the night in train stations so no one was injured.
The government blamed "bandits" and criticized the military and police in the area because they could not stop the bombs. They suspected that there were elements of the military who themselves had carried out attacks, or paid criminals to blow up the bombs, so they could keep their military bases in the area. More and more attacks grew in the area in the following years but they still rarely led to deaths.
The conflict escalates
In early January 2004, the conflict in Patani suddenly became well known. Several hundred people attacked a military camp and fled with four hundred rifles while they killed four soldiers. A state of emergency was introduced and the military increased its presence in the southern parts of the country.
During that time the military began setting up roadblocks around the provinces in an attempt to get hold of those responsible. On april 28 in 2004, eleven different checkpoints were attacked and during the battles, more than a hundred people died.
The government claimed that those killed had all been fighting but it turned out later that most of them were unarmed. Even worse was the news that 32 people had been killed inside the area of the historic Kru-Ze mosque in Patani. It seemed that most of them had been executed by the military.
The massacre in Tak Bai
The parts of the local population in southern Thailand whom did not support the rebels now became increasingly critical of the government.
The worst incident occurred on October 25, 2004 when hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the police station in the town of Tak Bai to protest against the youths from the neighborhood that had been arrested. When the army arrived on the scene they decided to arrest many in the crowd. The arrested protesters were tied behind, beaten, and were loaded into trucks and then taken to the nearest military base. 78 people were crushed to death during the trip and they also believe that seven people were executed by the military.
After the events in Tak Bai, the number of attacks were increased substantially. Since then there have been several attacks every week, both against military targets, but also against the civilian population in the area. It is still unclear exactly who is behind the violence in southern Thailand since very few statements have been made by the rebels.
It is assumed that there is a collection of different groups working together, and the people who have shown their willingness to negotiate has no, or very little contact with those who are driving the conflict.
Violence has continued with attacks almost every day. The rebels often directed their attacks against people working in the state school system, such as teachers and principals. They argue that the school system is part of the Thai government tactics to get people to be more rectified.
During the past year the number of people killed in Patani conflict reduced, but whether this means a trend reversal and a beginning of the end of the troubles is too early to say. However, it is clear that one reason for reduced death toll is the ongoing negotiations between the Thai government and the rebels in Patani carried out under the leadership of Malaysian negotiators. Another explanation for the reported fewer deaths from southern Thailand could be that the news from Thailand is dominated by political instability and coup d'etat carried out in 2014.
Pressure on the rebels
In 2007, the government launched a major offensive which was to carry out mass arrests of the suspects in the conflict zone. Nearly 2,000 people were detained for two months and the criticism was cutting from organizations that monitor human rights. The Thai government is accused, among other things, to various forms of torture in order to obtain information.
The government has also in recent years begun to distribute weapons to the "voluntary" in the conflict zone. In 2007 and 2008 the military hired a large number of these volunteers. They have less education and lower pay than ordinary soldiers and are therefore cheaper to run. A major problem is that they have shown very little respect for human rights and are also involved in corruption to a greater extent than other soldiers.
The border conflict with Cambodia
Thailand has a border dispute with Cambodia. This conflict has been a decades long history and applies whether the temple of Preah Viehar located on the border between the countries belongs to Cambodia or Thailand. This question received its formal solution in 1962 when the ICJ (International Court of Justice) ruled that the temple actually belonged to Cambodia. Despite this, Thailand has claimed the area, and particularly the immediate area, which led to strife in the late 1970s.
The conflict was inactive three decades, but in 2008-2009 the tensions increased once again. These tensions culminated in early 2011 when the Cambodian and Thai soldiers fired at each other across the border.
The fighting continued for three days in February and thousands of civilians were forced to flee. The fighting were about the area surrounding the temple. ICJ’s verdict mentions nothing about the area surrounding the temple, and the 4.6 square kilometers, according to Thailand is theirs.
To calm the situation down the UN Security Council gave the responsibility to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Southeast Asian countries' association). Despite repeated negotiations, the parties agree to a peace agreement. Instead, the unrest spread to nearby Surin Province, Thailand, where the border strife erupted in late April.
The conflict is not solved even if both parties have withdrawn their troops from the area.
In July 2011, elections were held in Thailand and the party Phak Phuea Thai, (PPT) won. The party elected Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's first female prime minister. During hers time as Prime Minister Yingluck was accused of corruption. The accusations were about the price of rice, and whether Yingluck knew, and did enough to stop the possible corruption that was going on when the government undertook a major project to provide assistance to rice farmers.
Yinglucks government was deposited by a military coup in 2014. Thailand is governed since August 2014, by the General Prayut Chan-o-cha. The military promised to hold free elections shortly after they took power, but so far no elections have taken place. According to the latest timetable, there should be elections held by the end of 2015. This, however, was rejected by the senior people in the government who argue that elections can not be held until the second half of 2016. Regardless of when the next free elections are held, it is clear that the Thai political system is fragile and that the risk of mass demonstrations and violence is ever present.
Translated from: sakerhetspolitik.se