Songsuda Yodmani, a high-society figure who is the current President of the American University Association of Thailand, held a much-publicized press conference on June 1, condemning what was regarded as American interference in the latest Thai putsch that ousted the government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
Claiming that the Association was apolitical, Songsuda nonetheless openly discussed politics, exploiting her position to attack the US for criticizing the Thai coup.
Accompanying her was Suvit Yodmani, her husband, who once served as Minister of Tourism and Sports in the military government of General Surayud Chulanond. Interestingly, the Surayud government was formed in the aftermath of a coup in 2006 that toppled the Thaksin Shinawatra government. A question must be raised here whether the Yodmanis, in defending the coup makers now, might have enjoyed certain kinds of benefits of the past and present military rulers.
It is important to emphasize that Songsuda is a daughter of one of Thailand’s most notorious despots, the late Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn. A staunch anticommunist, Thanom oversaw a decade of military rule in Thailand from 1963-1973, until public protests exploded into violence, forcing him to step down. His homecoming from exile in 1976 sparked protests that led to a massacre of demonstrators at Thammasat University. This was to be followed by another military coup.
Throughout Thanom’s period, Thailand worked closely with the United States, in constructing Thai policy that was essentially anti-communist, pro-American and pro-monarchy. Even in his exile, Thanom ran away to settle in Boston for a while. In other words, the United States became both the Kittikachorns’ second home and a political shelter.
Songsuda seems to have lost her affinity with the United States, the very country that gave her education. She graduated from Harvard University. At the American University Alumni Association, Songsuda made her point clear: Her press conference would be conducted in an amicable spirit as friendly advice to the United States for what she said was its continued meddling in Thai political situation.
Songsuda strongly criticized the statement of the US State Department that rejected the rationale behind the coup, which questioned the vagueness of the junta’s roadmap, and which called for the coup makers to return power to the Thai people as soon as possible.
Songsadu then began to lecture the United States about Thailand’s long and immaculate history as a nation, which has remained independent for more than 800 years. To Songsuda, Thailand is a proud nation and knows the diplomatic savour vivre for it has never interfered into any other countries, particularly never into the American domestic affairs.
Thus, as the United States doubted the junta’s roadmap, that meant the US was taking its relationship with Thailand for granted. It was important, she said, to remind the State Department to treat Thailand as an equal partner.
“We are an independent nation,” Songsuda said. “We are not a colony of the United States. We will defend the pride and dignity of the Thai nation.”
Supporting his wife, Suvit took away the media limelight by asserting that the US’s own history was also painted by periodic political traumas, from relentless reforms to the abolition of slavery and the civil war. This may have taken the United States some 25 years before it could find a peaceful solution.
“The United States therefore must understand that each country has its own political uniqueness,” Suvit said. To say that reforms in Thailand should be shortened to less than a year illustrates the naivete on the part of the United States.
Suvit added, “We lost 20 lives and more than 700 people were injured. They were our great losses. I must stress that the roadmap that will now take one year and three months will surely not be enough to guarantee successful political reforms”.
Together, Songsuda and Suvit delivered a beautiful speech that undoubtedly endorses the legitimacy of the coup. This has been the latest desperate attempt of representatives of the conservative elites in creating a discourse on Thailand’s political uniqueness which must earn some kind of respect, acceptance and be sheltered from any criticisms from the outside world.
Perhaps the Yodmanis might be interested in some facts regarding Thailand’s foreign policy and its initiate ties with the United States in the past decades. The claim that Thailand had never interfered in any other countries is fraudulent. One clear example demonstrates how Thailand had become inexorably involved in the Cambodian conflict in which Thai troops offered different kinds of assistance to the Khmer Rouge, with the backing of the Americans.
Under the bilateral military alliance treaty, the Thai army has continued to gain most from its American counterpart in terms of financial support, transfers of military equipment and the annual military exercise under the codename Cobra Gold. Long years of receiving benefits from this alliance have shaped the making of Thai foreign policy to be rigidly pro-US, to the point that Thailand has sacrificed its own decision making power.
From being obliged to support the US’s War on Terror to the surrender of Victor Bout, the Russian arms smuggler, to the US authorities, Thailand has lost considerable independence in managing its own affairs.
In the game in international politics and as a medium-sized country, Thailand has only to a certain degree bargaining power vis-à-vis key countries such as the US.
More importantly, as a member of the international community, Thailand will not be able away to run away from criticisms or even other kinds on tangible interventions, such as in the form of sanctions, should Thailand choose to disregard democracy and adopt totalitarianism.
The United States is only doing its job here as the so-called defender of the world’s democracy. Frankly speaking, for most of the time, the United States has been accused of paying just lips service and lacking in sincerity in promoting democracy in countries where its national interests is scant.
Songsuda has tainted the reputation of the supposedly nonpartisan American University Alumni Association by taking advantage from her position in justifying the coup. While the love for dictatorship might not be genetic, Songsuda’s action has proven that democracy could become a disgusting ideology for those old and new elites who have refused to recognize that Thailand’s political landscape has over the years changed tremendously.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.