Commentary Magazine


Topic: Thaksin Shinawatra

Why Is the U.S. Sacrificing Thailand to China?

I spent much of the past week in Bangkok, Thailand, for a small roundtable exploring issues of radical Islamism in the Middle East and strategies to combat the problem in Southeast Asia. While the meetings did not focus on U.S. policy, criticism of the Obama administration’s strategic foresight and willingness to stand by allies was a constant refrain amongst policymakers and officials from across the region during coffee break chatter and in separate meetings.

Read More

I spent much of the past week in Bangkok, Thailand, for a small roundtable exploring issues of radical Islamism in the Middle East and strategies to combat the problem in Southeast Asia. While the meetings did not focus on U.S. policy, criticism of the Obama administration’s strategic foresight and willingness to stand by allies was a constant refrain amongst policymakers and officials from across the region during coffee break chatter and in separate meetings.

Simply put, Thailand—like Morocco, Taiwan, Colombia, Israel, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, among others—has consistently oriented its policies in support of ties, friendship, and alliance with the United States only to feel that the United States looks at traditional allies with disinterest if not disdain.

Simply put, under President Obama, Thailand finds itself cast aside. And while China has courted Thailand assiduously in recent years, Thailand has so far stood firm despite its rude and often poor treatment at Obama administration hands.

Part of the problem grows out of Thailand’s increasing fractious politics. In September 2006, increasingly raucous street demonstrations led the Thai military to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His supporters took to wearing red shirts and calling themselves the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Those behind the demonstrations which led to Thaksin’s ouster wear yellow shirts and call themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy. Many leftists, students, rural farmers, and some businessmen support the red shirts, while the urban middle class, royalists, and nationalists support the yellow shirts. (The BBC has a useful overview of the red shirt-yellow shirt fight.)

In recent years, the red shirts supported Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who won a landslide election victory in 2011. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that she had abused her power and, on May 7, 2014, ordered her to step down. She was ousted by a military coup the next day. The polarization between the red shirts and yellow shirts is quite incredible. Supporters of the two factions often do not speak to each other, and most Thais believe that further violence is inevitable. Picture the societal divisions that marked Turkey or South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, and Bangladesh or Egypt more recently.

Many Thais breathed a sigh of relief when the military stepped in to separate the two sides. They saw the intervention not as a power grab by ambitious generals, but absolutely necessary to separate those whose political spat threatened to unleash violence which might spiral out of control and destroy any foundation for democratic development in Thailand.

Enter the United States: Many Thais complain that the U.S. Embassy is isolated and disinterested. When the coup occurred, it and the State Department more broadly wagged its finger without any understanding or suggestions of other solutions for the precipice on which Thailand found itself. All coups are bad, the State Department seemed to argue, and so it would be better for Thailand to suffer thousands of casualties in mob violence than undertake a corrective, cooling off period in which the two sides might step back. And, as in Honduras, the Obama administration’s position seemed to support left-of-center leaders willing to defy their supreme courts, rather than accept that limited military intervention might actually be necessary to enforce the constitution when a crisis occurred.

The Thai military has promised to hold new elections in October 2015, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. After all, while not ideal, there is ample precedent in Thai history of the military briefly assuming power, but only briefly, and then returning power to the people in actively contested and very legitimate elections.

The Obama administration and State Department, however, seemingly ignorant of Thai history or the consequences of mob violence in Thailand’s incredibly diverse social fabric, continues to turn its back to Thailand, its requests for support, and a nearly 200-year-old Treaty of Friendship. Enter China: China is already Thailand’s largest trading partner, and Beijing is happy to seize advantage from Obama’s diplomatic temper-tantrum to increase both its activity and influence in Thailand, much of which will come at the expense of the United States.

Thailand might not be the stuff of headlines in Washington, but the United States is in no position to willfully rebuff another alliance, sacrificed upon the noxious mix of Obama’s arrogance and ignorance. China is playing chess; Obama might as well be playing with Play-doh.

Read Less

Bullets Over Bangkok

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.

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.

Read Less




Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.