Obama's Chance to Shift the Thai Stance

The newly re-elected US President Barack Obama kicks off his second term with his first foreign visit to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand from 17-20 November.

While much attention is paid to his role at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh and his first visit to Myanmar—indeed the first ever visit by a US President—his trip to Bangkok has so far gained little interest from either Washington or the world of media.

Perhaps it is because the two countries have long enjoyed intimate relations. Thailand is the US’s oldest ally in the Asia-Pacific, and was offered the status of a major non-NATO ally in 2004. Both have engaged in the biggest and longest running military exercise in the region, called “Cobra Gold.” Bilateral ties are generally strong, so strong that Thailand may have been taken for granted.

In the meantime, the US has been rather quiet even when the Thai domestic situation turned violent, particularly in the past few years. Why has the US failed to promote democratization in Thailand?

The answer is that the American perception of the current power struggle in Thailand is strictly constrained by an old, obsolete structure in which Thai-US relations have been shaped and dominated by the effective military-monarchy partnership and the various American interests in the maintenance of such a partnership. As a result, the US has appeared to adopt a stance of support for establishment forces at the expense of a serious advocacy of the pro-democracy agenda of the Red Shirt movement, known principally as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or UDD.

Self-interest alone does not sufficiently explain unfailing American support for Thailand’s traditional elites and its seeming disapproval of the Red Shirts’ political activities. Based on extensive interviews with a number of Thai and American diplomats, I can conclude that the obstinate attitude of the US derives fundamentally from a lack of understanding of and genuine interest in Thai political development on the part of the Department of State and the American Embassy in Bangkok.

The end of the Cold War and the gradual American disengagement with Southeast Asia, including Thailand, during the 1990s and into the period of Thaksin Shinawatra’s 2001-2006 administration created a huge vacuum of information on political evolution in the country. This vacuum has conveniently prevented the US from modifying its policy even as the Thai domestic and international environments have changed significantly.

Washington continues to operate in its relationship with Bangkok on the basis of its conventional perception of Thailand, even as it endlessly pays lip service to the promotion of Thai democracy. The American policy of safeguarding the Thai political status quo, which has benefitted the rich and powerful elites in the kingdom, has severely narrowed the perspective of the US, and indeed its policy options, as it tries to keep up with Thailand’s unfolding political situation.

What has transpired has been the crude construction of a binary image of Thailand’s leading political actors. Whereas the ruling elites are “trusted friends”, the Red Shirt demonstrators, along with Thaksin Shinawatra, are “threats” to the traditional form of Thai democracy.

Throughout the Obama administration’s first term, it made several failed attempts to balance between its support for the traditional elites and its sympathy towards the Red-Shirts. The botched intervention in Thai politics of US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to hold talk with both leaders of the Red-Shirts and representatives of the Thai elite in early 2010 threatened the supposedly perfect relations between the two countries. Following Campbell’s attempt, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, backed by the elite, sent his special envoy Kiat Sitthi-amon to Washington to condemn the US attempts to mediate in the conflict.

But Campbell’s intention to reach out to the Red Shirts seemed to reflect more his own goals, rather than any policy at the national level. In reality, the tactic of painting an image of the Red-Shirts as a challenge to the status quo is continuing both in the old establishment camp and in the US; it was exacerbated by the previous Abhisit government’s allegation that radical elements within the Red Shirt movement are indeed terrorists who burned down a departmental store in Bangkok.

From this view, the battle between the traditional Thai elite and the Thaksin network is no longer confined within Thailand’s borders. The US has become directly involved in this power game. Unfortunately for Thaksin, he is not Aung San Suu Kyi, a figure who has long dictated US policy and swayed Congress because of her struggle for democracy. Thaksin has too much baggage and is a threat to the old power structure.

The current Yingluck Shinawatra government has an uphill task not only to change the American attitude towards the traditional Thai elites but also to refashion Thaksin into a figure more acceptable to the US government. As for the Red Shirt movement, its fight for democracy is still a “boutique issue”, one that appeals to a relatively small clientele in the American capital, compared to the major foreign and domestic issues facing the Obama administration.

The supposed terrorist acts committed by some of the Red Shirt members and rumors of their “underground” network and plot to subvert the monarchy have further deepened America’s suspicion of the Reds and cemented its favorable position toward the old elite. After all, it is easy and convenient for Washington policy-makers to look at the Thai situation from their archaic perspective, and not seriously take into account new factors which have emerged in a changed environment.

President Obama could take this opportunity, during his visit to Bangkok, to get to know an alternative force in Thai politics. It is not too late for the US to come to terms with a new reality in Thailand, a reality in which the US will need to readjust its position vis-à-vis its old friends in the Thai establishment.

(Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)