As with most such outbreaks, there are legitimate grievances behind the protests being mounted by the “Red Shirts” of Thailand. That truth renders the events there even more strongly reminiscent than they might otherwise be of similar incidents around the globe during the Cold War. Thailand’s precarious situation could spiral out of control very easily. It is not at present being driven by outside forces or even apparently being exploited by them. But U.S. influence in the region is at stake along with Thai democracy. If a consensual stability is not restored in favor of the status quo long presided over by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, there will be no lack of interested outsiders seeking to shape Thailand’s future.
Most readers are familiar with the basic narrative about populist politician Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in a military coup in 2006 and convicted of corruption charges in 2008. A February 2010 court decision ordering him to return $1.4 billion to the state was ostensibly the precipitating event for this spring’s prolonged protests by his Red Shirt supporters.
But fewer may be aware that Thaksin’s search for quarters in exile landed him this spring in Montenegro, the autonomous coastal province of Serbia that has become famous for its special relationship with Russia. Thaksin now holds a Montenegrin passport and has reportedly visited Russia during this year’s period of Thai unrest. The sitting prime minister of Thailand, for his part, is not leaving Russia uncourted. The Bangkok Post noted last week that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva plans to visit Moscow himself in early June, in spite of having canceled trips to the U.S., Vietnam, and Australia because of the unrest at home.
Russia’s interest is as much in drawing Thailand away from China as it is in cooling the traditional warmth between Bangkok and Washington. The year 2009 saw an unprecedented agreement between China and the Abhisit government to hold a joint military exercise billed as a rival to the “Cobra Gold” series with the U.S., the recurring Thai-hosted war game that draws up to 15,000 troops from the U.S. and East Asian nations. Growing military cooperation between Thailand and China is a continuation of policy inaugurated under Thaksin Shinawatra; efforts to cultivate or preempt such cooperation are in prospect regardless of who comes out on top in Thailand. Meanwhile, Russia’s re-energized ties with Vietnam, which now include a major arms deal and ongoing improvements to the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, position the Russians next door to Thailand — as well as athwart China’s strategic vista to the south.
Adding to the prospect of instability is the Malay Muslim minority in southern Thailand. The Malay Muslims have taken a back seat to the Red Shirts this year, but their restiveness has by no means subsided. They will seek to take advantage of any evidence of weakness in the regime. The likelihood that they will have outside help is strong if the fate of Thailand is in doubt.
Regional observers think King Bhumibol will have to step in as he did in 1992 and demand that the opposing factions settle their differences. But this very critical view of that option, from Australia’s center-left Sydney Morning Herald, implies a reason (other than his ill health) why he hasn’t done that yet: it might not work. An ineffective royal appeal would be the signal for political chaos.
On the other hand, the status quo in Thailand cannot continue for much longer anyway. Bhumibol is 82, and his oldest son is unpopular. Although this situation is rife with difficult issues, the Obama administration should surely be doing more than closing the U.S. embassy in Bangkok to business, evacuating American personnel, and being “deeply concerned,” as State Department spokesmen have reported in daily briefings for the last six weeks.
It’s worth noting that Russia is not evacuating any diplomatic personnel from Bangkok. Moscow and Beijing are more determined than Obama is to play a major role in restoring stability to Thailand. That will not work in our favor. American influence in Asia is heading the same direction as our influence in the Middle East.