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Pragmatic Approaches to Coal and Renewable Energy in Thailand

Thai protestors demonstrate their opposition to the Krabi coal plant in February 2017. Image: Phuket Gazette

 Over the next two decades, Thailand’s Power Development Plan 2015-2036  lays out a path to increase its use of coal as a portion of its overall power mix (PDP2015).The rise of coal is an intentional diversification away from Thailand’s long-standing reliance on natural gas, which has raised its energy security risk. Domestic natural gas is depleting rapidly, and the country is heavily dependent on natural gas imports from Myanmar. However, coal is not as popular with the general public, as Thais are now more keen to develop renewable energy sources. To Thai people, pursuing a path that leads to wider use of renewables fulfills two objectives: it reduces environmental impacts and also supports the local economy, enabling more citizens to produce and sell electricity back into grids. In the battle over Thailand’s energy future, the country can move toward actions that address fundamental dimensions of energy development – local concerns, environmental threats, and energy security by including public involvement, expanding renewable infrastructure, and taking responsibilities to social and environmental impacts by the government.

Prior to the detention of protest leaders in early February, local citizens of Krabi Province in southern Thailand and environmental activists gathered in front of the House of Government in Bangkok to protest against a proposed 800-megawatt coal-fired power plant in their hometown. According to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the plant will tackle power shortages related to a projected annual demand growth of 6% and insufficient grid infrastructure in the southern region. The new power plant reflects Thailand’s PDP2015 that lays out an increase in the share of coal power generation via clean coal technology from 20% to 25%. The local citizens, however, asserted that renewable energy such as solar and biomass should be considered, instead of coal, together with reinforcement of the renewable grid connection network[i]. Although the potential nation-wide application of a renewables-only strategy is a long way off, policymakers should recognize that renewables have the potential to become a substantial source of electricity in the region.  Pursuing coal as a dominant power source without developing capacity for alternatives will undoubtedly make Thailand’s energy security even more vulnerable.

According to PDP2015, Thailand’s power development aims to address the energy security issue by diversifying its energy mix and avoiding over-dependency on a particular source. Thailand currently ranks near the top of the list in least energy secure countries, according to the US Chamber of Commerce. Thailand plans to curtail natural gas use that accounts for as high as 67% of its total electricity generation in 2015, and diversify by building new coal-fired power plants. New coal-fired generation units in the country would replace old and inefficient coal-fired power plants with “supercritical” or “ultra-supercritical” technologies, leading to an increase in energy efficiency ranging from 30%-50%. Nevertheless, the current most advanced ultra-supercritical technology could render 17% less carbon emissions, compared to other pollutants such as nitrogen which could be reduced up to 80%. Coal prices are expected to decrease by 23%-49% in year 2020 due to its abundant availability. This expected price drop supports EGAT’s estimation that at a capacity of 1000 megawatts, coal-fired power plants will save Thailand up to USD $86 million per year compared to natural gas.

New coal generation, however, carries a set of potential environmental and health concerns, not to mention the tourism impact emerging from coal transportation by water in tourist-concentrated areas such as Krabi. Although some pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and PM2.5 released are not a concern, the potential impact of externalities such as mercury contamination have not yet been studied. Worries about transparency and misjudgment to build the new coal power plant have pressured the Thai government to require a new and more stringent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Health Impact Assessment (EHIA) to prove the safety of environment and the people.

There is still a silver lining in Thailand’s drive for diversification, in that the national energy plan predicts that renewable energy will grow from 8 to 20 percent of Thailand’s total capacity over the next two decades (AEDP2015). To help meet this target, the Thai government has encouraged renewables by initiating subsidies in a form of feed-in tariff (FIT) to both small and large commercial-scale producers. The FIT rates differ on power plant size and fuel types i.e. waste, biomass, biogas, wind, hydropower, and solar.

Krabi residents are more ambitious than the PDP, as many are advocating for 100% of electricity generation from renewables as the ultimate goal. According to the Research Center in Energy and Environment in Thaksin University, it would be economically and technologically feasible for installations of renewable energy to power the entire province within 2 years. If fully employed, solar, wind, biomass, biogas, and waste capacities combined could provide electricity exceeding Krabi province’s power demand. Similar practices could be adopted by other provinces in the South. A study by Thai Health Promotion Foundation (in Thai) estimated that the exclusive utilization of alternative energy in all the southern provinces alone could increase GDP by $3.309 million USD (116,000 million BTH) and employment by 200,000 workers by 2027, while decreasing imported fossil fuel costs by $683 million USD (24,000 million BTH) and greenhouse gas emissions by 27 million tons per year. However, reliance on renewables alone would endanger local electricity stability since renewables are limited in transmission network and storage capacity.

How, then, should Thailand develop an approach considering its citizens’ health, environmental concerns, and energy security?  First and foremost, the Thai government should allow public participation to occur. There is no denying that the opposition of the coal power plant derived from the lack of decision-making power by local individuals and organizations. Citizens should have a role to play in the decision-making process about energy development in their community. Reports of the benefits and disadvantages conducted by both the government and non-partisan groups should be provided to citizens for their review and understanding. This will also promote transparency and allow the government to discuss its national energy issues with its citizens.

At the same time, adoption of renewable energy sources should be encouraged with a negotiated percentage of the total electricity needed, given its energy diversification benefits. Since Thailand primarily imports energy from abroad, the country should harness its domestic renewable energy potential by enhancing infrastructure for renewable such as transmission and distribution networks for renewables to reverse its current energy dependence. Inevitably, this could solve network congestion that prevents power already online from selling back to the grids.    These improvements will decrease the need for so many new natural gas and coal developments and support diversification.

Due to renewable network constraints and energy security purposes, a balanced use of nonrenewable fuel sources should still be considered.  Whether new coal-fired power plants should be developed or not depends on the consensus for which the public has a stake. The Thai government should assure its people, particularly those who would be directly affected by the operation of new fossil fuel power plants, that adequate remedy will be given if undesirable conditions incur. For a more sustainable path, as IEA Clean Coal Center suggested, the government should establish a clean coal research center to undertake studies on clean coal technologies and implementation. Such a center would allow international experts or organizations a first point to contact and focus their resources and expertise when promoting and/or supporting the clean coal technologies in Thailand.

[i] Thailand’s national renewable development plan, Alternative Energy Development Plan, aims to increase renewable generation to 20% of its overall installed capacity. The target is one of the most ambitious renewable energy plans in Southeast Asia. However, renewable energy facilities tend to concentrate in certain areas, leading to network congestion caused by limited transmission lines. To date, current capacity and planned network reinforcement information has not been publicly available and included in the energy plan.

 

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Hydropower in Laos: An Alternative Approach

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It’s time to take another look at the future of energy in Southeast Asia.

A report published in September by the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based think tank, challenges prevailing notions about the future of hydropower in the Mekong subregion, an area including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and southwestern China.

The report focuses on Laos, which in years past has proclaimed itself the future “Battery of Southeast Asia,” by aggressively developing hydropower dams on the Mekong. Laos has already built 29 large dams along the river’s mainstream and tributaries, with plans for over 100 in total. The land-locked country remains the poorest in Southeast Asia, and has planned to raise cash by exporting electricity to consumers in neighboring countries.

But project developers of these dams – who are typically Thai and Chinese companies – have faced criticism from civil society groups and international observers for the myriad social and environmental consequences brought on by dam construction. The Mekong is home to an estimated 1,000 species of fish, many of which migrate along the river and replenish the region’s fisheries. By changing the hydrology of the river, these dams threaten the biodiversity of the Mekong and the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers throughout the region. In times of drought – as has been experienced this year – the dams can cause regional insecurity by contributing to water scarcity problems downriver.

While dam construction has continued apace despite these dangers, the Stimson report argues that new markets and technologies are creating an opportunity to change course.

Challenges for Lao Hydro

The report highlights new developments that could steer Laos away from further damming on the Mekong. First, following a period of economic and political liberalization, Myanmar is emerging as a competitor for energy infrastructure finance. Myanmar boasts nearly 100 gigawatts of potential hydropower capacity, far exceeding what is possible in Laos. Such a glut of potential projects in the region is likely to siphon away financing that might otherwise go towards hydropower development in Laos.

At the same time, China’s economic slowdown could signal the end for cheap and easy hydropower finance in the region. In previous years, Chinese state planners encouraged outbound investment in strategic sectors such as hydropower projects in Southeast Asia. However, the report notes that government concerns about non-performing loans on the books of Chinese banks seem to have reduced the funding available for some projects in Laos. Rising local awareness about the social and environmental costs of these dams also adds a layer of risk that financiers may find discouraging.

Perhaps most critically, it appears as if planned generation in Southeast Asia is outpacing the region’s appetite for energy. China, once envisioned as a potential market for Laos power, is already experiencing serious overcapacity in its domestic power market. Thailand, while still a major investor in Laos hydro projects, has consistently overestimated its own consumption levels – and has lots of room to cut demand through energy efficiency measures. Both Cambodia and Vietnam have planned to reduce their reliance on imported energy, with the latter investing heavily in coal-fired power plants.

A New Vision for Laos

Taken together, these signals make a compelling case for a new energy strategy in Laos and in the region as a whole.

First, the report suggests that Lao planners should invest in a backbone transmission network to connect its patchwork regional grids. This is a good idea for a variety of reasons. A nationwide transmission system would help open up markets for Lao electricity both domestically and internationally by creating a more flexible grid. It would help planners integrate renewable energy resources like solar and wind. It would also be a great step towards electrifying the remaining 20% of the country still without power.

Secondly, planners should consider ways to diversify the country’s energy mix with wind and solar. With too much reliance on hydro, the region risks facing shortages during drought conditions, which will become increasingly likely due to the effects of climate change.

It also makes good economic sense. Utility-scale solar is now nearly cost-competitive with hydro in Laos. Solar avoids the social and environmental challenges associated with hydro that have led to disruptive public protests and cost overruns, making it a safer bet.

In fact, solar already plays an important role in electrifying Laos’ rural communities. Companies like Sunlabob have pioneered low-cost solar home systems to provide basic electricity services like lighting and device charging to remote communities. A new energy outlook from Lao energy planners would also be a great opportunity to optimize plans to fully electrify the country, whether by grid connection, solar home systems, or village-level microgrids.

Lastly, greater international cooperation in energy planning is needed. The construction of a national power grid will require technical assistance from international experts. The Asian Development Bank is leading this effort, and plans to invest $400 million in a national transmission network by 2020. The US has already begun providing power planning and optimization assistance through the Department of Energy and its national laboratories.

The US is also supporting renewables in Laos. In advance of President Obama’s visit to Laos in September 2016, the US Trade and Development Agency committed to funding a feasibility study for a 20 megawatt solar farm in the country.

China, as a regional power with an abiding interest in Laos’ energy sector, can also benefit from this shift. The world’s largest solar module manufacturers are Chinese, and government support for emerging solar markets is one way to bolster domestic manufacturers while also rebranding China as a responsible stakeholder in the region.

Laos’ energy future is still uncertain. Energy planners remain convinced that prioritizing dam construction is Laos’ ticket to prosperity, despite the risks. But as the challenges for Lao hydro become ever more apparent, a new way forward could be in the making.

Read the Stimson Center’s full report here.

This article was first published here on the Pacific Observer website.

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Thailand bets on China-led AIIB to finance massive infrastructure needs

Will China's AIIB-backed 'railway diplomacy' be enough to jumpstart Thailand's lagging economy?

Will China’s AIIB-backed ‘railway diplomacy’ be enough to jumpstart Thailand’s lagging economy?

On January 26, Thailand’s cabinet approved a budget of 52.82 billion baht (US$1.47 billion) to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Thailand will hold around a 1.43 percent share of the bank with payments beginning in five installments of 2.112 billion baht (US$58.90 million) due by the end of 2019.

“As the country [has] aggressive plans to improve its much needed infrastructures, the AIIB would offer great opportunities in terms of more loan availability” explains Nithi Kaveevivitchai, a research economist at the Bank of Ayudhya.

Thailand’s junta is attempting to revive the country’s flailing economy with an ambitious spending program of over US$100 billion that would include large-scale infrastructure upgrades for the country’s railways and roads, as well as air and seaports. Being one of the fifty-seven founding members of the AIIB, Thailand could potentially receive cheaper loan rates and more flexible lending conditions from the Beijing-based bank, compared against the US-led World Bank or the Japan-led Asian Development Bank.

The Thai government foresees it will benefit from intensified diplomatic rivalries between China and Japan. During a speech in April 2015, Thailand’s energy minister Narongchai Akrasanee, cannily asserted that “one thing we have learned is that if we welcome the Chinese, the Japanese will come running.”

Support for the AIIB in Thailand has not been unanimous, however. Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister and current advisor to the Democratic Party of Thailand, criticized the creation of the AIIB as “part of China’s global strategy to dominate” and argued at the Asian Financial Forum that “China will be dictating terms and that will further weaken the Asean community.”

Since seizing power, Thailand’s military generals have instead sought to deepen political and economic ties to China, which is now the country’s largest trading partner. “It has been analyzed that any related projects that could benefit the supply chain network and trading routes between the ASEAN region and China would receive great attention from the AIIB,” assesses Nithi Kaveevivitchai.

The Sino-Thai railway link, which aims to transform Bangkok into the hub of China’s ambitious Pan-Asia Railway Network, appears to be a particularly likely candidate for an AIIB infrastructure loan. After months of bumpy negotiations – during which Beijing insisted on downgrading the railway from high-speed to medium-speed – the project saw a breakthrough in January 2016 when China agreed to Thailand’s demand that it slash its interest rate from 2.5% to 2%.

The Chinese government had long insisted on a 2.5% rate, arguing that Thailand was now an upper-middle income country, notes Mr. Nithi.

“Whether [the] AIIB will be used to fund this project is still too early to say… it could be seen as a good alternative for funding, especially if the development bank can offer a more competitive lending rate,” he adds.

The railway is currently facing further uncertainties due to its estimated budget of 500 billion baht (US$13.08 billion) and the Thai government is asking China to take more financial responsibility for the project.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak told the Nation (Thailand) on February 5 that “Thailand was requesting that China be responsible for civil construction and related work for the 800km-plus railway track instead of just providing trains, rolling stock and related equipment, as the scheme is mutually beneficial so profits should not be the only factor for consideration.

In addition to issues of cost, critics in Thailand have asked whether the project is actually beneficial to the country, which has no mass goods in need of rail transit.

In parallel to the Sino-Thai railway link, Thai and Japanese authorities recently announced they have launched on a trial basis a train-delivery service using 12-foot long containers at Nong Pla Duk Junction in Ratchaburi province.The aim would be to eventually connect the junction to the Dawei deep-sea port in Myanmar, where Thailand has been developing a special economic zone (SEZ) with Naypyidaw since 2012. The long-delayed project was recently joined by Japan in 2015 and has the ambitious aim to become the gateway for the Mekong region to the Indian Ocean. China, however, has also expressed interest in creating a Dawei rail link, intimating a likely point of competition in the future. 

While it remains too early to be seen whether Minister Narongchai will be proven right, using the AIIB to expedite rail infrastructure loans could significantly help China  secure its fragile ascendancy over Japan in terms of ‘railway diplomacy’, as the two countries continue to compete for contracts across Southeast Asia.

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The best of Thailand’s PM Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a true April Fool

Gen. Prayuth: Taking aim at the haters

Gen. Prayuth: Taking aim at the haters

Yesterday, Thai government officials announced that starting next month, officials other than Thailand’s Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, would be giving weekly press conferences to make sure the media “accurately” covers the government’s actions.

Gen. Prayuth commented: “We want to explain to media, and we want to create understanding between the state and the media to avoid any mistakes.” The mistakes and verbal gaffes indeed have been many and if the military junta wasn’t so repressive, he actually might be a funny PM. In honor of April Fool’s Day (we didn’t want to scare anyone with fake news of PLA jets bombing Naypidaw or something of that sort), we’re giving you a list of ExSE’s favorite quotes from a true April Fool, Gen. Prayuth. Without further ado…

Letting you know that he’s hip with the youth and a proponent of culture, Gen. Prayuth even has ideas on how to improve Thai soap operas:

“I have ordered that scripts be written, including plays on reconciliation, on tourism and on Thai culture,” Prayuth told reporters. “They are writing plots at the moment and if they can’t finish it I will write it myself,” he said of a team of government-appointed writers.

Thai PM bemoans divisive soap operas, offers to write better ones“, Reuters, September 26, 2014

To make sure Thailand remains the ‘Land of a Million Smiles’, the junta has cracked down on political dissent and discussion. In giving his reasoning for the crackdown, Gen. Prayuth quipped:

“Please understand that I don’t come from an election. I’m well aware of that. So please put on hold all political criticism and forums on politics,” said the prime minister, who came to administrative power through a military coup on May 22.

‘Unelected’ Prayut warns against political forums“, Bangkok Post, September 19, 2014

After two British tourists were murdered, Gen. Prayuth wanted to make sure that the Thai authorities were taking the case seriously, or at least make it look like they did. But you can guess what happened…

“There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also the army chief, told government officials. But “can they be safe in bikinis… unless they are not beautiful?” he said, addressing the issue of tourist safety in a speech broadcast live on television.

Thai PM questions if ‘tourists in bikinis’ safe after murders“, AFP, September 17, 2014

In one of his most notorious statements, Gen. Prayuth admits that there may be more than one of him:

“He was referring to the media’s suggestions for him to try to improve his personality. “I would like to thank [the media] for warning and suggestions. I won’t change my personality because I am a person with multiple personalities,” Prayut said.

Prayut admits he has ‘multiple personalities’“, The Nation, November 3, 2014

Last but not least, it looks like the good ole General has some thoughts about truth and journalism. When asked by reporters what the government would do with journalists who didn’t support the official line, Prayuth, without smiling, replied:

“We’ll probably just execute them

We’ll probably kill journalists who don’t report the truth, says Thai leader, Reuters, March 25, 2015

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South Thailand’s Muslim Insurgency is not Global Jihad

solider guarding Muslims

A Thai soldier guards a group of Muslims during prayer. Photo courtesy of The Nation.

Introduction

In the early morning of January 4, 2004, a group of armed men raided an army depot at the Rajanakarin Camp in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat. They walked away with hundreds of military-grade weapons, and left four Thai soldiers dead in their wake. Around the same time, arsonists set alight 20 provincial schools and two unmanned police posts. A series of similar incidents followed in neighboring Yala and Pattani provinces, prompting then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to declare martial law in volatile areas within Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat—on top of his already high-handed brutality in the region.

Further angered and suppressed, belligerents in this area escalated violence to new intensities. At the core of this conflict is a separatist movement active among the Thai Malay Muslim community since the 1960s. While the term “Malay” refers only to an Austronesian ethnic group, ethnic Malay identity cannot be divorced from Malay traditions, Malay language, or adherence to Islam. This has pitted Malay identity in direct competition with the Thai identity cultivated under King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This conflict of identity and consequent alienation from the Thai community has prompted violence to erupt in Thailand’s majority Muslim southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, collectively referred to as Patani.

Since a renewed surge of violence in 2004, the South Thailand Insurgency, as it is know, has incurred over 6,000 fatalities and over 11,000 injuries and has significantly impeded development in the region. The Thai state, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge the ethno-national and ethno-political grievances at the heart of the conflict, hindering an effective solution to the violence and prompting international organizations—including the Malaysian government and the United Nations Development Programme—to become increasingly involved in the problem-solving effort. Effective dialogue between belligerents and the Thai state is the only way to resolve the South Thailand Insurgency, but this will remain out of the realm of possibilities if Thailand continues to deny the identity issues fueling this conflict.

Patani map

Map of Patani region. Source: http://books.sipri.org/files/PP/SIPRIPP20.pdf

Patani Region

Patani is a historical region located on the northern part of the Malay peninsula. In the modern day, this region is transnational: Patani includes the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and parts of Songkhla, as well as the Malaysian state of Kelantan.

Patani was an independent Muslim city-state until the sixteenth century when it became a vassal state of Siam, and came under increasingly direct Siamese rule during the Sukhothai and Ayuthaya periods. Following resistance and a series of rebellions in response to this shift, Patani fractured into seven separate regions. These seven regions existed until the Bangkok Treaty of 1909, in which the British (who at that time controlled Malaysia and were creeping northwards) acknowledged Thailand’s sovereignty over the seven regions of Patani. In return, Thailand relinquished the southern territory of Kelantan to British control. By 1933, Thailand had consolidated the seven Patani regions and renamed them Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Today, the Patani region is home to roughly 1.8 million Thai citizens, 80 percent of whom are Muslim. The remaining 20 percent are almost all Thai or Sino-Thai Buddhists.

 

Rise of “Nation, Religion, King”

In the post-colonial, increasingly globalized world, the Thai monarchy saw the need to reinvent itself for the modern era. In the process of reinventing the monarchy, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s relationship with the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks—the sangha—became intertwined with the prosperity of the nation. Thus, the role of the sangha was given a national component, and became integral to a healthy state of internal affairs. In later years, King Bhumibol was emboldened to transform the sangha. Guiding Bhumibol in this process was Vajiravudh (Rama VI)’s three pillars of nation, religion, and king. These pillars linked King Bhumibol inextricably to the nation through religion, and served to strengthen the king’s intertwinement with the sangha. In practice, the pillars meant that Buddhism was to facilitate the deification of King Bhumibol. Accordingly, a variety of rituals and holy days were presided over by the king, and royally endorsed public works projects were under taken in the countryside. Rural temples, controlled by the sangha and hence the king, became a link between the village and the national consciousness, thus providing the Thai people with a common experience with king, and laying the framework for a common Thai identity.

 

“Thainess” vs. “Otherness”

A standardized practice of Theravada Buddhism, in other words, has historically been employed as the ideological underpinning for the civilization and unification of all Thais. It was not just the practice of Buddhism that was standardized, but also the ethnic composition of its adherents. Promotion of the Thai language, too, was used to standardize Buddhist practices. This standardization provided a specific group of people within Thailand’s borders with a collective goal and a common sense of duty towards the advancement of the nation. The goal was to “make them realize [that they belong to] the same nation, religion and king, pledging loyalty to the king and the nation as their refuge and worship Buddhism.” A Thai identity based in these precepts resulted. This is known as “Thainess.”

It is the standardization of the sangha that has facilitated the construction of otherness. Confronted with globalization and modernity, Western notions of nationhood and rigid borders began to change the Thai attitude on who is entitled to benefit from the state. In order to determine this, an identity binary developed: “Thainess” arose situated opposite to “otherness.” Thainess is defined by a collective duty to Vajiravudh’s three pillars as previously discussed, and holds little in common with Western notions of individualized national identity. This group alone is allowed to benefit from the Thai state.

“Otherness,” by contrast, encompasses everything Thainess is not. Because the three pillars define the Thai conception of nationhood, any deviation from these three pillars disqualifies an individual or group from integrating to and benefiting from Thai society. The South Thailand Insurgency is one particularly aggressive response to this identity binary. In southern Thailand, Malay Muslims cannot integrate because they do not practice Buddhism; those who do not practice Buddhism are not viewed as Thai. Simply put, to be a part of Thailand is to be quintessentially Buddhist. Standardization has changed meaning of religion from one of personal choice to that of identity signifier.

A Thai soldier guards a Buddhist monk as he collects alms. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

A Thai soldier guards a Buddhist monk as he collects alms. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

The effects of otherness extend beyond the inability to integrate into Thai society: otherness is often viewed as a threat to national stability. King Bhumibol has cultivated a sense of fear and animosity towards those who do not identify with the three pillars, and has convinced each individual Thai that his or her fate is tied up with the state, and that the state’s fate is tied to the monarchy. If the monarchy falls, Thai prosperity will falter. This common understanding has provided the monarchy with masses directly aligned with its ideology, thus protecting the monarchy from threats of otherness. The South Thailand Insurgency attests to the lengths to which many Thais are willing to go to protect their monarchy—the foundation of their identity—and to prevent the fracture of the state. This conflict is also a testament to the difficulty of building a national identity in Thailand—the process is hindered by porous borders, multiple ethnic minorities and religions, and a complicated citizenship process. This means that language spoken, religion practices, and ethnicity do not line up as the Thai state insists they do.

 

Conflict Overview

Many consider the current violence in the “Deep South” to be a renewed version of the older liberation struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, which itself was a reaction to Thai state control. Lack of state legitimacy due to rigid ethnic identifiers then as well as now is at the core of the conflict. King Bhumibol’s continued standardization policies and centralization of the Thai state have alienated those who do not subscribe to the “nation, religion, king” trifecta, resulting in a “legitimacy deficit” of the Thai government in minority regions. In Patani, Bhumibol’s policies have transformed Patani’s political and Islamic educational and legal structures into a “quintessentially Thai” system. Because Malay Muslims in this region cannot identify themselves within this structure, grievances and resistance movements have materialized to address the government’s failure to provide Malay Muslims with a niche in Thai society.

Grievances are brought to the attention of the Thai state by a number of Patani liberation movements, with most fighting carried out by small groups of fighters consisting of young men aged 17 to 25. Violence occurs in open areas during the day, and takes the form of drive-by shootings or bombings, and sometimes larger, organized attacks. This has meant that most casualties are civilians. The most active groups are the BRN-C (BarisanRevolusiNasional-Koordinasi), its alleged armed wing the RKK (Runda Kumpulan Kecil), the GMIP (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani), the BBMP (BarisanBersatu Mujahidin Patani), and the PULO (Patani United Liberation Organization). As opposed to the conflict of the ‘60s and ‘70s in which insurgent groups were sharply divided, today’s insurgent groups share a common Islamist agenda, ideology, and goals. Above all, the liberations movements demand the creation of a Malay Muslim state separate from the rest of Thailand. This united front has made the modern iteration of the conflict more difficult to fracture and quell than the last.

 Destruction in Patani. Photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor

Destruction in Patani. Photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor

Following the 2004 raid on the Rajanakarin Camp depot, violence in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat has increased dramatically. The 2004 Krue Se and TakBai incidents have become synonymous with the recent resurgence in violence, and have fueled grievances among liberation groups in recent years. Then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s unapologetic response to the incidents served to heighten violence towards Thai forces on the part of the liberation groups. Since then, violence has escalated steadily. Because the conflict is ongoing, it is difficult to accurately assess the number of injured and killed. In a July 2014 report, Deep South Watch released the most up-to-date information on number of killed and injured by religious affiliation. Some sources speculate that death tolls have climbed to 8,000 or more.

 

Insurgency, Not Global Jihad

This conflict cannot simply be described as Buddhism versus Islam, religion versus religion. At this core of this conflict is an issue of identity that happens to have a religious component. The main reason the South Thailand Insurgency cannot be considered part of the global jihad is because the conflict is more strongly contextualized as one of Thai vs. other. And while the conflict undeniably has a religious component, that religious component is only one piece of a larger identity issue. To date, there has been no evidence of external involvement in the bombings and killings in the Patani region. The South Thailand Insurgency is ethno-political and ethno-national at heart, and centers on a local historical claim to the Patani territory. As Islam garners more and more negative press around the world, we must be careful to assume that all conflicts that involve Islam are fundamentally jihadist in nature.

Fatalities and Injuries 2004-2014

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

 

Human Development Indicators

Poor development is both a cause and effect of the South Thailand Insurgency. Development in the area has been particularly hindered since heightened violence emerged in 2004. A comparison of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Indicators (UNDP HDI) from the years 2003, 2007, 2009, and 2014 reveals that the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have consistently failed to match the national development average. HDI ratings experienced a marked decreased following the violence of 2004. Education, income, family and community life, and participation in political and community activities are areas of particular concern.

HDI Yala

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

HDI Pattani

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

HDI Narathiwat

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

It has been suggested that poor development is heightening regional grievances and exacerbating the conflict; development is then further hindered, fueling further dissent. But while development averages in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat remain below the national average, UNDP HDI data reveals improving development indicators in 2014. This could be due to the increased involvement of international organizations in the region, discussed in the section below.

 

Solutions

A number of solutions have been implemented to facilitate resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Thailand, however, has taken a back-seat role in the problem-solving effort. The two most comprehensive peace processes, the Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project and the Ramadan Peace Initiative, were organized by the United Nations Development Programme and the Malaysian government, respectively. The STEP Project, implemented in March 2010, seeks to address grassroots development issues in Patani as a way to increase interaction with the local government and pave the way for national-level advocacy. STEP has progressed to its second and final phase, and is slated to be completed by December 2017. The Ramadan Peace Initiative, meanwhile, provided a neutral forum for talks between Thailand’s National Security Council (NSC) and the BRN-C. The talks were held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and ended in the signing of the General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process on February 28, 2013. The two parties met again in March, April, and May 2013, vowing to keep the dialogue channels open and actively work towards peace in the region. But since Thailand’s coup in May 2014, the domestic political situation has not been conducive to furthering the peace process.

Violent Attacks in Patani Jan13-April14

On November 3, 2014, Thailand’s military government vowed again to end the violence in the three southernmost provinces, this time within one year. Questions have arisen around the feasibility of this plan considering the lack of confidence in Thailand’s new government, and the fact that peace talks started during the Ramadan Peace Initiative have stalled. And despite the violence plaguing the region and the reorganization of government, Narathiwat is still slated to be become a Special Economic Zone in 2016. The Thai government’s hope is that by developing the economy, security issues will be resolved and the violence will be quelled as the economy grows. But because this solution still does not address the fundamental issue of the conflict—identity—it holds a high potential for failure.

According to International Crisis Group, “a highly centralized administrative structure, the persistence of rigid conceptions of national identity and an old-fashioned bureaucratic outlook” inhibit resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Furthermore, according to the International Crisis Group these influence analyses of the problem as well as policy formation and implementation, thus making it difficult for Thai leaders to acknowledge the political dimension of the conflict. To do so would call into question state legitimacy based on the three pillars or nation, religion, and king. These misguided priorities have seriously inhibited the peace process in southern Thailand. Government spending in the region reveals that the focus remains on counterinsurgency and military capabilities rather than community and infrastructure development: as the violence escalates, so does counterinsurgency spending. Since 2005, counterinsurgency spending in the Patani region alone has fluctuated between 9.9 and 17.5 percent of total military spending. Some reports indicate that average per-capita military spending in Patani is around twice as much as average per-capita military spending nationwide.

 

Source:  http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

Source: http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/node/5904

Looking to the Future

The nature of the solutions proposed by the Thai state suggests that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government (as well as prime ministers who came before him, and particularly Thaksin Shinawatra) refuse to acknowledge the ethno-political and ethno-national components to South Thailand Insurgency. In other words, there are no signs that Thailand is adjusting its adherence to the mantra “nation, religion, king” in order to accommodate minority groups. Some speculate that if the Thai government did adjust its definition of Thai identity or even allowed Patani to secede, other suppressed groups—both domestic and regional—would follow with their own liberation movements. This is unlikely for a number of reasons. First, the trifecta championed by the Thai state provides a direct contrast to minority identity that does not exist in other countries. Other minorities (like Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority group) may find it difficult to similarly contextualize their conflict as one of “state identity” vs. “other” because this rigid framework does not exist. Secondly, Malay Muslims constitute the second largest minority in Thailand (the first being ethnic Chinese) and are concentrated in a region on Thailand’s fringes. This has allowed the Malay Muslim community to over time create a united front against the Thai state. Other minorities in Thailand lack the same ability to unite due to their smaller and geographically fractured populations.

Although the South Thailand Insurgency is unlikely to threaten the existence of the Thai state, the conflict presents a severe humanitarian and national security issue and therefore deserves to be dealt with promptly and effectively. Dialogue is the most effective problem-solving tool in this situation, but there are few indications that the new Thai government is willing to cooperate in this way. In mid-November, 2014 a program to arm villagers against insurgents went into effect in southern Thailand, highlighting once again the government’s focus on weapon-based counterinsurgency. Thai authorities distributed approximately 2,700 military grade weapons—reportedly HK-33 assault rifles—to civilians in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Scholars as well as sources on the ground with knowledge of local opinion believe that the plan is bound to backfire and increase violence in the region, not quell it. This kind of “problem solving” must end. The Thai government instead must demonstrate flexibility and inclusion by supporting Muslim representatives in government and easing its assimilationist policies in the south. Only when a political space for discussion and the airing of grievances is created and maintained can the violence plaguing the Patani region end.

 

Further reading: 

Abuza, Zachary. “A Breakdown of Southern Thailand’s Insurgent Groups.” The Jamestown Foundation. 8 Sept. 2006. Web.

Advancing Human Development Through the ASEAN Community: Thailand Human Development Report 2014. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2014.

Bean, James. “Thailand’s Little-Known Peace Process.” The Diplomat. 31 July 2013

BTI 2014 – Thailand Country Report. BTI. Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2014.

Boontanondha, Thep. King Vajiravudh and the Making of his Military Image. 2013. Web

 Decludt, Florian. “The Cause of Unrest in Thailand: ThaksinShinawatra.” International Affairs Review. The Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, 20 Jan. 2014. Web 

Handley, Paul M. The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s BhumibolAdulyadej. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

 How Can the Peace Process Be Taken Forward?Deep South Watch. 28 Feb. 2014.

 Human Security, Today and Tomorrow: Thailand Human Development Report 2009. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2010.

Jerryson, Michael K. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

 Jitpiromsri, Srisompob. An Inconvenient Truth about the Deep South Violent Conflict: A Decade of Chaotic, Constrained Realities and Uncertain Resolution. Deep South Watch. 2 July 2014.

Jitpiromsri, Srisompob, and PanyasakSobhonvasu. “Unpacking Thailand’s southern conflict: The poverty of structural explanations.” Critical Asian Studies 38.1 (2006): 95-117.

Karaman, Bahar. “Thailand promises peace ‘within a year’ in Muslim south.” Thailand Business News. 4 Nov. 2014.

Lefevre, Amy Sawitta. “Thailand promises peace ‘within a year’ in insurgency-hit south.” Reuters. 3 Nov. 2014. Web

National Security Council of Malaysia. “General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process.” Agreement between Lt Gen ParadornPattanatabut and Ustaz Hassan Taib. 28 Feb. 2013.

“Massacre of Thai Muslims remembered.”Al-Jazeera. 25 Oct. 2012.

Mateus, Sofia Diogo. “More guns to increase ‘tit-for-tat violence’ in southern Thailand.” DW. Deutsche Welle, 11 May 2014.

McCargo, Duncan. Situation Report: Thailand. Tony Blair Faith Foundation.Tony Blair Faith Foundation, n.d. Web.

Melvin, Neil J. Conflict in Southern Thailand: Islamism, Violence and the State in the Patani Insurgency. Stockholm: Stockholm .

“Rohingya: Stateless and Unwanted.” Al-Jazeera. 2014..

Shadbolt, Peter. “Explainer: Thailand’s deadly southern insurgency.” CNN. 19 Feb. 2013.

Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project: 2010-2012. 2010.

“Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project.” United Nations Development Programme. Web.

“Thailand begins peace talks with southern rebel group.” BBC. 28 March 2013.

Thailand Human Development Report 2007. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2007.

Thailand Human Development Report 2003. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2003.

“Thailand Islamic Insurgency.” Global Security. 22 June 2014.

“Thailand/Malay Muslims (1948-present).” University of Central Arkansas.

Thailand: The Evolving Conflict in the South. International Crisis Group. International Crisis Group, 11 Dec. 2012.

“Thailand military seizes power in coup.” BBC. 22 May 2014.

“Thai mosque killings criticised.” BBC. 28 July 2004.

United States Bureau of Intelligence and Research. International Boundary Study. Rept. no. 7 1965. The Florida State University. Web.

 

 

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How’s it Going, Thailand?

In the late afternoon of May 22, 2014–about the time when many people were leaving their offices–many TV screens turned frozen. The tunes behind put many in reminiscence: patriotic songs that once were ubiquitous in Thailand 50 years ago came alive. The screen was dominated by the color of blue with “National Council for Peace and Order” appeared under five logos of the military.

A few hours passed, the screen remained the same but a different song was playing. Every channel was painted with the same six words. Occasionally, for another day or two, a young man in uniform–possibly in his forties–sat behind a table and started to read word by word from the sheet of white A4 paper in front of him. As he read along, the screen scrolled down simultaneously to show what was typed on the letter.

They were orders. More than a dozen orders were issued to Thailand with immediate effect. The head of the military, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, assumed the head of Thailand’s government. A curfew between 10pm to 5am was set nation-wide. Media was seized and controlled. All to maintain “peace and order.”

The next day, the young man was accompanied by a young woman, each had a few sheets of white paper in front of them. They switched to read over a hundred plus names of high position leaders who were summoned by the new Thai leader. These people were demanded to report within 24 hours.

At this time, no domestic news was reporting what was happening to Thailand. Much of the updates were acquired via social media and foreign news agencies. Videos of uniformed soldiers’ invasion into many media offices were recorded and posted online. People were furious at what was happening. But they were only those who were following the coup’s movement at every step. Others whose main–and possibly the only–channel of news was the television, remained sheltered with messages by the NCPO.

The violence has not broken up yet. Some wanted their voices to be heard so they gathered by Bangkok’s core to claim their stance. Bangkok Arts and Culture Center became the first occupy, followed by the Victory of Monument, and a famous conspicuous shopping street the following days. The “No-Coup” crowd had their signs written and their mouths taped black. A few hours later, the military came to disperse the crowd and instead claimed the territory theirs with their arms. For the next couple days, Bangkok continued to be surprised by more crowds in various spots around the city yelling “No Coup!” Other provinces started to see crowds gathering in the city centers. “No Coup” movement became contagious.

Human rights groups issued their statements condemning the coup and demanding summoned individuals to be released or returned. But their voices never made it to the television. Other Thais–whose source of news wasn’t only the television–reprimanded these protestors as “destroyer of peace.”

The nation is still divided and fragmented.

A week–and months–after the coup’s entrance, every local channel still had NCPO’s logo audaciously pressed at the top right corner. Media was mostly reporting financial news and showing nightly soap operas. Updates on the coup were briefed on May 28, 2014 to foreign media with a strong confirmation that Thailand was too unstable for an election. The last coup last two and a half years before an election of recycled familiar faces.

Hidden in the midst of the coup’s dominating scene over Thailand, rural folks and environmentalists are facing another layer of turmoil overpowering their livelihoods. The new authority is pushing Thailand’s newest Power Development Plan and forest/land kleptocratic programs to the decision-maker’s plate while Nature-dependent communities are squeezed off the cliff. Deals are being made behind closed doors and those who dare to say different risk being detained by the armed force.

We will keep our promises. Give us some more time. And our beautiful country will return…” This new song, composed by the coup leaders, has become Thailand’s most played song on TVs, radios, public media. Mornings, recess, mid-days, afternoons, late afternoons, nights, midnights, twilights, dusks, dawns.

Six months is how long the coup has taken over. The clock is still ticking.

Thailand no longer has a constitution. If you want to hold an event commenting or expressing your different views on the nation’s policy, either ask for a permission in advance or risk being arrested. Or might as well, just self-censor your existence.

But some university students can no longer remain patient. 5 students, each wearing a black t-shirt with a word on it jumped between a crowd of khaki uniforms and the stage where Prayuth Chan-Ocha was orchestrating about “drought and water management plan for E-san.” Five persons to challenge the military’s order which prohibits an assembly of 4+ persons group. An index, a middle finger, a ring finger to symbolize your support for the “No Coup” wave. A combination of these components will conceal your freedom in the police and the military’s territory.

This is Thailand’s time to test its people. No one knows when fear will stop pressing our faces to the ground. No one knows when curiosity will trigger someone to start questioning reality. Indeed, no one knows if most people will just forget and move on, leaving the minority screaming–in mute.

The author of this essay is a concerned Thai citizen choosing to publish anonymously.  

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Monsters in the Mekong

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

It will be a giant, stretching across the mighty Mekong River. Standing 32.6 metres tall and 820m wide, the $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam in Laos could supply electricity to more than three quarters of a million homes in Thailand. And when it’s completed in 2019, it will be the most controversial power project in the region.

Since the plan was released in 2010 to construct the hydroelectric plant, geologists and environmentalists have voiced concerns about safety and the effects the mega-dam will have on neighbours Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. They have highlighted the risks of seismic activity in the area and the threat to the fishing industry on the 3,100-mile long (4,900 kilometres) Mekong River, which flows from the Tibetan steppes into southern China on its way to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Continue reading

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Space and Spectacle in the Bangkok Protests

Part of the spectacle at Democracy Monument.

 

Bangkok has been rocked with the largest political demonstrations since 2010, with protests escalating into isolated pockets of violence.

Yesterday’s D-Day is part of the “final battle” by the anti-government protesters, with morning marches from all major rally sites converging at Government House. Prime Minister Yingluck announced that she would dissolve the lower house of Parliament, as a reported 100,000-150,000 protesters flooded the streets of Bangkok and members of the Democrat party resigned.

Clashes on so-called V-Day last Sunday left a reported five people dead and 64 injured in the confrontation between anti-government and pro-government protesters, including one who died when a bus was attacked.

Over the last two weeks, anti-government protesters occupied key ministries, government complexes and police headquarters.

The police attempted to alleviate tensions after the worst of the clashes, as they opened up barricades to major government offices – even offering roses to protesters in a symbolic gesture just days after taunting protesters and firing tear gas at crowds.

These protests showcase the complicated intersection of history, social changes, and legitimacy in current Thai politics.

And the very spaces of the rallies themselves become entry points into these deep, complex waters. What do the protests and occupied sites in the city reveal about the myriad of claims and competing political aims among the factions? What can the symbols and aesthetics of this protest tell us about what is happening and why? Continue reading

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Fire, Spirits and Ritual Self-Injury in Phuket: The Vegetarian Festival

Photograph by Amy Devlin (2013).

Fireworks explode in a loud cascade in the middle of the street, but no one flinches. I watch as a young barefooted man passes me – a pair of guns are impaled in his face, the barrels poking into the open flesh of his cheeks and out of his open mouth. He’s dressed in a black costume embroidered with Chinese symbols.

He is a mah song, a spirit medium, and he’s not the only one. Throngs of men and women are parading down the street, with metal skewers, needles, and even weapons inserted into their cheeks, arms, torsos and elsewhere on their bodies. They are in trances – their heads are twitching rhythmically, eyes rolled back, and their hands are clenched. Groups of devotees reverently carry statues of the gods. As far as the eye can see, everyone is clad in white. Continue reading

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Burmese Teak: Turning a New Leaf

It’s prized the world over for its durability and beauty and has long been a status symbol; to own something made from teak really means something. But what is teak and why does it matter today?

Teak, or Tectona Grandis, is a large, deciduous, hardwood species found throughout Southeast Asia in environments under 900m in elevation that receive over 500mm of annual rainfall. Teak is known is primarily known for its durability; it is naturally water-resistant and contains resins that repel and termites and slows rot. Because of these qualities, teak wood is valued for its ability to resist the natural elements and is often used in outdoor furniture and yacht and sailboat building.

Teak is native only to India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. Of the estimated 29 million hectares of naturally occurring teak forests, almost half are found in Myanmar. It is important to note that only Myanmar does not enforce a logging or export ban on teak, so all legally-harvested natural teak on today’s market is Burmese. The cost of this Burmese teak can be quite high – the market price for some wood can reach than $4,000/m3. This represents the most expensive teak, as natural teak is valued higher than its planted counterpart. There are several reasons for this disparity. First, plantation teak has smaller dimensions than natural teak and rarely reaches the size of a natural tree. Secondly, there is a perception among many buyers that plantation teak is less dense than natural timber and thus is of a lower quality. In addition, natural teak is a rare resource. As mentioned, Myanmar is currently the only country exporting natural teak and its forests are decreasing every year, making prized Burmese wood rarer and more expensive.

teak 1 Continue reading

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