by Austin Michael Bodetti. He researches the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He visited Thailand in July 2015.
In just four and a half years in power, Thailand’s military government has found itself facing a plethora of challenges. These difficulties range from a stubborn insurgency waged by Malay separatists in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla, and Yala to growing potential for economic stagnation as bureaucrats in Bangkok fret over a precipitous drop in visitors to one of Asia’s top tourist destinations. Thai generals have also jailed protesters and other opponents as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to criticize the military government for often disregarding human rights. In addition to this variety of dilemmas, the military junta will soon have to confront the rarely discussed problem of climate change. Global warming, like the actions of the military government, is undermining the national security of the Western world’s most important ally in Southeast Asia. Thailand can resolve the majority of these troubles by mixing environmentalism with democratization and reform. Environmentalists and politicians, not generals, can direct Thailand to sustainable development.
Despite the rising urgency of the international community’s push to deal with the consequences of global warming, Thailand has continued to struggle with dangerous environmental issues as varied as air pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, and water scarcity. Thailand’s rapid, successful transformation from a developing country to a regional power has likely fueled at least some of these problems.
As the country’s governing body, Thailand’s military bears responsibility for addressing these environmental issues and preventing them from snowballing into an ecological disaster. From a more immediate standpoint, climate change is also interfering with Thailand’s military capability and national security. “The Impact of Climate Change on Occupational Health and Productivity in Thailand,” a report by Nuntavarn Vichit-Vadakan, Sasitorn Taptagaporn, and Uma Langkulsen from Thammasat University noted that heat stroke had become a major issue for the success of Thailand’s recruit training.
The Thai generals responsible for environmental policy have begun implementing a handful of countermeasures. In January 2017, the military government suspended all gold mining operations in an attempt to limit damage to the natural environment. In April 2018, Thailand closed a beach popular with foreign tourists because of damage caused by climate change. Thai officers are also training with their counterparts in Myanmar to coordinate emergency management for natural disasters caused by global warming.Thailand has gone as far as enlisting its most powerful ally in its bid to counter global warming and engage with the environmental movement. In June 2015, the Royal Thai Armed Forces and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) oversaw what a U.S. Defense Department report described as “the fifth annual Pacific environmental security forum”, designed “to develop foreign nation capacity in several environmental security areas through combined projects within the USINDOPACOM AOR”. This step better prepared Thai officers to appreciate climate change’s effects on international security.
Though these efforts suggest that the environmental policy of Thailand’s military government is heading in the right direction, the Southeast Asian country must go further. The Thai leadership needs to combine support for environmentalism with the restoration of democracy and respect for human rights if the military junta wants to blunt the damage of global warming to Thailand’s economy, national security, and future as a whole. Thai officials have acknowledged the consequences of these failures.
“All these factors have contributed to the existing state of natural resources”, the Office of the Prime Minister concluded in its presentation on “the twelfth national economic and social development plan“, which addressed the consequences of economic growth for the many environmental issues facing Thailand. “Forest areas are decreasing. Soil becomes unfertile [sic]. Biodiversity is threatened. Coastal ecosystems are destroyed. Water resources cannot meet consumption demand. Environmental problems escalate simultaneously with the growth of the economy and urbanization.”
Floods and other natural disasters instigated by the side effects of global warming are becoming more pressing concerns for Thais. A number of Twitter users have documented floods that hit Thailand in December 2018, an ominous warning sign. Meanwhile, climate change will likely come to threaten the livelihoods of countless farmers in Thailand, where agriculture comprises 10 percent of gross domestic product and employs as much as 49 percent of the Southeast Asian country’s workforce.
If the military government wants to take a proactive approach to these problems, the first step should include forging sincere connections with the environmental movement and the rest of civil society. Thai activists have already signaled their interest in supporting the goals of the environmental movement in their homeland, yet the military junta has so far responded by arresting environmentalists.
Despite this danger, 1,250 environmentalists gathered in Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, to demonstrate against plans to replace local forests with upscale housing developments in April 2018. A colonel from the Royal Thai Police said that protesters “focused on environmental issues and not politics”. This admission suggested that the environmental movement is gaining momentum in a country that the news media has long oversimplified as a land of coups d’état and political scandals.
If the military junta wants to prepare Thailand for climate change, the generals in Bangkok must integrate an aggressive environmental policy with democratization, reform, and outreach to civil society and the international community. Only a civilian government representative of Thais across the political spectrum can ensure the kind of mass mobilization needed to respond to global warming.Thailand could bolster any engagement with environmentalists by following the Indonesian example of encouraging religious support for the environmental movement. Indonesian activists, clerics, and gurus have framed environmentalism as an obligation for Muslims, whom they portray as responsible for protecting all life. Buddhist monks, meanwhile, have taken a similar approach to responding to the dangers of climate change in Thailand. Mongabay even dubbed them “ecology monks“. Thailand can take advantage of this trend by billing environmentalism as a matter of Buddhist ethics.
The international community can amplify Thailand’s efforts to curb the effects of climate change. The United Nations Development Program has expressed its eagerness to assist Thailand with preserving its mangroves as part of a wider goal “to support local communities through a series of activities focused on increasing knowledge about the importance of preserving marine and coastal ecosystems”. For its part, the UN Environmental Program has been advising Thailand on efficient energy use.
Thailand’s Western allies may offer the Southeast Asian country their own forms of assistance. Australia is already collaborating with Thailand on devising responses to climate change mitigation, such as greenhouse gas removal. The Peace Corps, an American initiative to promote cultural diplomacy in the Global South, has even integrated environmental education into its program in Thailand.
Engagement with civil society and the international community will put Thailand on the path to democratization and sustainable development while preserving the country’s military capability and national security. If the generals now in charge of Thailand cede authority to a civilian government and encourage support for the environmental movement, they can serve as a model for other Asian countries that have struggled with climate change and where militaries wield social influence, including Myanmar and Pakistan. Thailand’s status as a regional power has positioned it well for this role.