Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Explosions beyond Thailand

I was at the Hua Hin Clock Tower. I was at Patong Beach. I was at the Erawan Shrine.

All within the last year or two, so the bombs of last week are all too real to me.

Indeed Trang, and Satun, are still on my wishlist when next in Thailand.

And unfortunately the e-ink was barely dry on Khun Surin Pitsuwan's insightful article in the Bangkok Post last week before the roar of the explosions drowned out many of his points.

As I write this on the Saturday after the bombs and fires, it seems likely that the explosions were an extension of the Deep South unrest. And more importantly, a reaction to last Sunday’s Charter referendum.

And the points made by Khun Surin on the dangers of division in Thailand again, are all too clear with the North, Northeast and Deep South all voting against the Charter. Division familiar in UK given the Brexit vote against by London, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Certainly it seems very unlikely that the bombs are linked to ISIS/Daesh or last year’s Erawan Shrine Uighur incident. Bangkok though, like London and New York as world cities, will often play host to wider conflicts.

Yet blood has been shed in the Kingdom of Smiles after the first moves back to full democracy before November 2017, despite the largely peaceful and well-run Charter vote. Notwithstanding the concerns aired by Khun Abhisit and Khun Yingluck and others both inside and outside Thailand on the freedom of debate around the Charter and referendum questions.

And the bombs reached beyond the usual confines of the Deep South to the whole Kra peninsula from Trang to Surat Thani to Hua Hin, and they also reverberated around the world with 4 deaths and at least 3 German tourists injured.

Nobody doubts Thailand’s commitment to the safety of its foreign guests with Britain’s 1M tourists and 100k expats, as well as 50k Thai expats in UK, some of the largest UK and Thai communities abroad. Although I must admit if I’d been blown up and hospitalised I’m not sure I’d want to be woken for a politician’s visit even if it was the dynamic Tourism Mister Khun Kobkarn.

##Thailand and UK##

Of course, Thailand, like any modern nation, needs to and will resolve its internal policies as best it can. That said, as MP candidate in Kent for better UK-Thailand relations, I can assure the Thai public and government of my support for any UK support they need or want in the future.

Such support could be renewed effort on both tourism and FDI – without jeopardising UK citizens, as the Foreign of Office travel advice so far is fair and balanced.

But the plans to issue simcard tracing in mobile phones to tourists in Thailand seems astonishing in being almost designed to reduce tourism – and all the more worrying as it seems a pan-ASEAN initiative already in place in Malaysia?

Surely such plans should be part of a wider ASEAN debate on dual-pricing for Thais and foreigners, perhaps a minimal cost given the extensive Thai support and investment for Tourism Police, and mobile phones in general given EU moves to already fix and reduce, and in 2017 end roaming charges.

And further activity around Kitchen of the World and OTOP especially Thai silk and Fashion with its 1TN THB export target as detailed by Khun Dr Somkiat of TDRI, could be implemented more rapidly in the UK High Street. Along with the range of Mega-Transport Bus, Bridge/Tunnel and ASEAN Rail projects.

Frankly it’s far clearer than the advice by UK government on potential ISIS/Daesh attacks in UK – do you know if Severe or Substantial means more or less danger or how Imminent or Likely, Imminent and Likely are? I haven’t a clue as to what the bafflingly obtuse UK traffic light of danger actually is. Especially when there seems neither a central point of information (A traffic light of danger website? A cricket board of danger in Piccadilly Circus? Flashing lights at Heathrow?). Nor any reason other than randomness or coverage for changing the warnings.

But I digress, for UK and Thailand can take some pride and comfort in UK tourists now reaching a record 1M visitors to Thailand and actually increasing through the unrest of 2014 and before. Britons voting with their feet or Air Miles to support Thailand while most nations' tourism such as China fell away to nothing.

I don’t think it’s outrageous to say that Thailand has no greater friend than the Great British Tourist. Something of the Dunkirk Spirit lingers in our approach to terrorism and the years of conditioning to the Irish Troubles and Blitz before that, with its revived aphorism of keep calm and carry on.

Perhaps with a Great British cup of tea too.

##Policing and wider cooperation##

And Thailand may well want to draw on UK policing links not just with Interpol and Europol, but specific programmes such as Operation Captura on Spain’s Costa del Sol to round up British and now EU criminals. Such work may be useful in Pattaya and Phuket to capitalise on Thailand’s tourism efforts.

And certainly a hard-pressed Thai police force should expect unfettered access to UK forensic expertise in future whether with police or university or private sector research labs. I was astonished to see police and then civilians walking through the Hua Hin crime scene and handling the plantpot bomb shards and even ballbearings, all without a police cordon and forensic suits and gloves.

Just yesterday, the NCA – the UK’s FBI – secured convictions in Operation Screenplay for the largest ever cocaine smuggling of 3 tonnes worth c.$1.5BN. While Kent Police is here in Frontline Kent with smuggling of people with the nearby Calais Jungle refugee camp and Dover Europe’s largest port and the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Their guns and drugs experience secured convictions just a month ago in the largest-ever UK haul of machine guns.

And here work is ongoing with Manston and Ostend airports notorious for sanctions-busting flights by Infratil with IranAir, KAM-Air from Afghanistan and DASAir blood diamonds out of Africa to Antwerp, and the new cocaine states and routes eg Guinea. While Ostend airport’s Viktor Bout gunrunner was eventually captured and extradited from Bangkok. A fate best served up to Infratil’s directors at Wellington airport.

Such UK expertise could be expanded upon with Thai and Myanmar work on Shan heroin Wu Army, and Yaba amphetamine gangs, and even cooperation on the 106,000 refugees on the Myanmar border coordinated with the dynamic UK and Thai Red Cross.

The wider points made by Khun Surin and the UK experience of 50 years of Troubles in Northern Ireland recently, thrown into stark relief by the Brexit debate, and still 52 bomb attacks in Northern Ireland this year and arms caches found just this month, are ripe for a strategic dialogue with UK and Thailand.

The reality is a United Thailand requires dialogue with the North and Northeast and Deep South to bridge the difficulties that exist beyond shirt colours and armed camps.

The debates around lese-majeste and release of student democracy activists are also thrown into sharp relief by a wider Deep South campaign. As does debate on both the role of the Thai military in politics – how horrifying to see the newly-democratic Myanmar now castigating Thailand – and military procurement and reform. Again, difficult subjects against the backdrop of 2014, and a new Deep South bombing campaign, but ones that friends such as UK and Thailand should broach.

Few people are friends of military rule, even the military themselves – The Economist research suggesting an automatic 10% fall in GDP from any coup anywhere and international isolation. Turkey has seen its tourism trade wiped out in the last month and for the foreseeable future to the benefit of Greece and Spain and perhaps Thailand. And the Thai success in averting civil war or prolonged political conflict has been averted since 2014 and the task now must surely be ensuring active UK and EU support for a return to full democracy as rapidly as possible.

While similar military debates in UK are ongoing on submarines and Trident now the effectiveness and expense of the recently commissioned armoured cars – The Times newspaper thundering on their weakness against Russian armour and shrapnel and such expensive bloat.

Such debates may be relevant for Thai and UK strategic military discussions along with the Spratlys from the initial UN ruling last month favouring Philippines. And the UK military role is moving much faster towards a humanitarian function given future Phuket and Haiyan crises and disaster management wave of tsunamis, droughts, volcanoes and typhoons and floods and landslides.

Given the revitalised UK-Japan defence treaty and UK’s close relationship with the Pacific Commonwealth and ASEAN nations surely Dusit should be pushing against an open door for future UK-Thailand cooperation?

While, with the Charter debate over and Brexit likely to be reversed, surely a tripartite discussion with Thailand and UK and EU can be increased.

The resolutions required of Future Thailand, from the referendum and latest bombs, are unlikely to be quick or easy, but will be a mark of the modern and democratic Thailand of the 21st century.

Tim Garbutt is owner of Sincerity Advertising soon to launch in Bangkok and ASEAN, and MP candidate in UK for better UK-Thailand relations: @timg33

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