Thai Reconciliation and US Geopolitics

On June 10, the US House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment called a hearing on "Thailand: The Path toward Reconciliation."

The subcommittee's interest is an indication that more is at stake than what the Thai government will do in the weeks and months to follow. It also emphasizes that the decisions Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is to take matter to the region and the world.

Emphasis on Thailand's political divisions between the Red Shirts and the royalists, for example, have the potential to sweep under the carpet the ongoing unrest in the three southern majority-Muslim provinces, which could thus slide toward more anarchy. This could affect Malaysia.

They could also lead to heightened tensions with Cambodia over disputed territories as different parties of the political context may play the nationalist card to win favor, as they did over the Preah Vihear temple last year. This would contradict all of the Asean premises of solving conflict peacefully and by consent.

More broadly, Thai democracy is an important barometer for some of the most illiberal regimes of the region, most notably Burma, which is looking with great interest at how Bangkok deals with political dissent.

For the US, Thailand is a key strategic ally in the region and what happens in Bangkok thus reverberates in some quarters in Washington, where policymakers are wary of the well-documented inroads of China in Southeast Asia.

But geopolitics ought to be based on foresight and long-term planning, and the message that the US hearing sends is one of narrow, immediate interests similar to those sent by the previous US administration of George W Bush when it failed to condemn the coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. At that time, most analysts said that, since Thaksin was a threat to the Bangkok elite, he thus was also a threat to American interests.

As argued by Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in a May 18 article posted on the CFR website, "this proved a major mistake, as the coup resolved nothing and only made matters worse."

The US hearing is taking the same pro-elite stance. The danger is that it could be another big mistake, unhelpful for Thailand and counterproductive for the US.

There is a widely held notion that Thailand is a bitterly divided society and Abhisit has a difficult job. Yet, most observers also agree that the country needs to find a new equilibrium between the demands of the color-coded groups that have taken it to the brink of civil war. In short, the status quo is over and attempts to maintain it could increase the social and political pressure as a prelude to it exploding again, in whatever forms that may take, in the near future.

However, Rep, Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, the non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives from American Samoa and chairman of the subcommittee, clearly does not think so and his presentation of the hearing denotes a preference for winding the clock back.

In a press release, he expressed the "House of Representatives' support for US-Thailand relations," while adding that "[the congressional body] encourages the country to resolve its ongoing political problems peacefully based on Prime Minister Abhisit's recently announced roadmap."

That plan calls on all parties to join together in upholding the monarchy, on the government to carry out economic and political reforms, and on the nation to create an independent committee to investigate the casualties resulting from recent clashes, all with the aim of holding new elections on November 14, 2010.

He added that "The plan offers a process that I believe can serve as the basis for an amicable end to the dispute. H.Res.1321 [the Subcommittee hearing] is meant to encourage that process, to demonstrate America 's commitment to Thailand and its people and to convey our sincere hope that Thailand returns to democracy, stability and the rule of law."

Faleomavaega then continued by highlighting all the reasons that make Thailand such an important ally for the US. What his presentation totally ignored, however, is that Abhisit has since zigzagged on his plan, which was—it is fair to say—rejected by the Red Shirt movement before the crackdown of May 10. He also ignored that, despite the facade of talks of reconciliation, Abhisit has moved the country to an unprecedented level of "legal authoritarianism," as defined by academic Michael K. Connors in his blog "Sovereignty Myth."

Many others have noted that in this climate of "reconciliation", transparency, rights to political assembly and due process of law are gone, as arbitrary arrests and censorship under the emergency law becomes the new norm.

Abhisit on June 6 announced that the state of emergency over the country was extended indefinitely. Imposed on April 7, the state of emergency empowered the Thai military to restore order and allow the government to impose curfews, ban public gatherings of more than five people, and censor and ban media from disseminating news that "causes panic." Human rights groups say hundreds of activists have been detained without trial, including several accused by the military of plotting against the crown.

Based on the above snapshot, it follows that Faleomavaega could have served the US and Thailand better if he had called for a proper investigation into what happened and encouraged Bangkok to abide by the proper principles that a democratic country is expected to follow. He could also have taken the opportunity to emphasize that the principles upon which the US Congress is based reject any intervention in electoral politics—something that has been rife in Thailand 's recent history. This would have endeared Washington to a larger segment of the Thai public. It would also have sent a strong message to the region.

The hope is that, although Rep. Faleomavaega is ignoring the wider picture, the US administration is not.

On the matter, the decision of US Assistant State Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell to meet with some supporters of the Red Shirt movement while stopping briefly in Bangkok on May 9 was a positive sign. To the ire of the current Thai government, he met with Chaturon Chaisaeng, the disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party's former leader and Noppadon Pattama, legal adviser of Thaksin. He correctly said that "he wanted to hear what they thought of Abhisit's roadmap."