After Thai Coup, Pressure From U.S., Offers From China
By WENDELL MINNICK, BANGKOK
Six months after a September military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra here, little appears to be out of the ordinary for U.S.-Thai military relations.
Yet tensions between Bangkok and Washington remain — and Beijing may benefit.
Although the United States has officially suspended some military programs, the annual joint U.S.-Thai military exercise Cobra Gold is scheduled to go forward in May. Thai Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niumpradit made the announcement last week.
The Cope Tiger air force exercises involving Thailand, Singapore and the United States were held in early February at Korat and Udon air bases in Thailand. It also appears that CARAT, the Thai-U.S. naval exercise, will go ahead this summer as planned.
After the coup, the U.S. suspended $24 million in military aid and canceled military education programs. U.S. law prohibits Washington from providing assistance after an elected leader is deposed by a coup.
“We are hopeful the Thai leadership fulfills the promise they made to step down,” said a U.S. government source in Bangkok. “We hope this will allow the U.S. to restart the stalled programs.”
A Thai government official said democracy will return shortly after the king’s 80th birthday on Dec. 5.
“The U.S. has basically agreed to give Thailand a year to turn things around before more serious sanctions take place,” he said.
Although the decision to hold the exercises might mystify democracy advocates in the United States who are pushing for more sanctions, it is no surprise to those in Bangkok who quickly remind outsiders that the Kingdom of Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, not a U.S.-style republic.
The Thai king is the head of state and the military’s commander in chief. The king has nominal powers, but his throne has moral influence, and the coup leaders have clearly received his blessing for ousting Thaksin.
The situation in Thailand was going from bad to worse before the coup. U.S. and Thai government officials say that Thaksin armed forestry rangers with automatic weapons to be used against his opponents. Thaksin also relieved the military of control over the southern insurgency and instead placed the local police in control.
The result, critics in Bangkok argue, was the disappearance and deaths of more than 2,000 people in the southern region over the last two years of Thaksin’s rule. Thai government officials have suggested that Thaksin could face genocide charges in the deaths.
“People were disappearing in the southern insurgency area, and people have complained that Thaksin thugs have beaten them up,” the Thai government official said. “The military has a mandate to keep the country intact, and fears of a civil war between pro and anti-Thaksin forces was a real threat to the stability of the country.”
Despite the continuation of military exercises, the U.S. insists that coup leaders must return to democracy.
“We will not resume normal military-to-military relations till after the coup,” the U.S. source said. “If things go south here, we will revisit the sanctions issue. They know how Washington feels about coups. The fact we are continuing the exercises should not be misconstrued by the Thai government that we are endorsing the coup. One issue that concerns the U.S. is maintaining martial law over some places in the north and northeast, where Thaksin support was strong. We would welcome a lifting of martial law in these areas.”
Things appear to be improving.
“They are drafting a new constitution that will go before the electorate for vote in July. Only then can they have elections,” he said.
There are efforts in Washington to bring about more harsh sanctions against Bangkok’s interim government, and there are fears here that more pressure, especially from Congress, might damage U.S.-Thai relations.
“There is a lot of pressure on the Hill to see this as a black-and-white issue,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. “A lot of people on the Republican side, in the Bush administration, who are not Asian experts, who do not appreciate the nuances of Asian democratic politics. It is complicated.”
For example, while Thaksin was elected, his rule was “not really democratic,” Pongsudhirak said.
Thaksin “abused power. He was corrupt. But Thaksin is smart. He is playing to this audience in Washington. He has hired two lobby firms in Washington,” Pongsudhirak said. U.S. Ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce “has a done a brilliant job in promoting Thai-U.S. relations and making people in Washington see the more nuanced view.”
Chinese Influence Rising
There are fears that the United States is losing influence in Thailand and Southeast Asia to China.
Although Washington has suspended military and educational programs after the coup, China’s ambassador was quick to recognize the new interim government.
“The Chinese have a polished team at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok,” the U.S. source said. “There is a two-star general, Maj. Gen. An Zhuoshan, in charge of the defense attaché office. This is very unusual for any embassy and indicates the seriousness with which the Chinese take Thailand.
“Thai coup leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin visited Beijing in January for four days. China is now offering Thailand $40 million in military aid. There are growing numbers of Thai military officers going to China for training. There are Chinese military officers coming to Thailand offering military education opportunities. The Chinese don’t use sanctions to punish nondemocratic countries.”
That reality hurts the United States far beyond Thailand, Pongsudhirak said.
“This is why the Americans are falling behind. Not just with Thailand but also with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, even other ASEAN countries,” he said. “China has a lot to offer now. China is embracing ASEAN on a multitude of fronts, not just military, but political, strategic, economic, trade, investment and cultural. And the U.S. has become constrained by all these legalistic, politically correct mechanisms. U.S. foreign policy in Asia has been held hostage by U.S. domestic politics, and sometimes American parochial pressure groups. Many special interest groups opposing a policy can kill it. China is not constrained on this front.”
Concern on how the U.S. responds to the Thai coup has much to do with the southern insurgency. There are fears that one wrong misstep by the United States could push the insurgency into the waiting arms of outside Islamic militants.
However, at present, both Thai and U.S. officials agree that the insurgency is strictly a Malay ethno-nationalistic movement that goes back a century.
“The Malay ethnic element is the key to understanding the insurgency,” the U.S. source said. “The insurgents do not have the same cohesiveness as Mindanao in the Philippines or Aceh in Indonesia.”
Nor do they appear to be influenced by foreign jihadists.
“Evidence that we have is that the southern insurgents do not want the outsiders to come in.” Pongsudhirak said. “There has been reported assistance offered by Jemaah Islamiyah [a southeast Asian militant Islamic terrorist group] elements, but they have declined it. They want to keep it to themselves as an ethno-nationalist movement. They do not want it to become a part of the global jihad campaign. But the longer it goes on, the radicalization, the Islamist agenda, al-Qaida, Jemaah Islamiyah will have more opportunities to infiltrate and to spread some influence.”
The U.S. source agreed.
“There are no links to al-Qaida in the south. Thailand’s southern problem is Malaysia’s northern problem. This is a domestic Thai problem that goes back a century. Thailand needs to address the core issues that cause the unrest,” he said.
Rumors abound of mysterious American operatives supporting the Thai military in the south, but these stories appear false.
“There are outrageous stories that the U.S. is meddling in the south. It is not true. We are not involved. There is no U.S. military activity in the south. No advisers. No equipment. No bases,” the U.S. source said.
“There has been technical support in terms of equipment such as X-ray machines, but nothing heavy. No advisory role. In fact, it is the opposite. The U.S. and U.S. Embassy in Bangkok have gone out of their way to be seen with a hands-off posture.”
Pongsudhirak warns that U.S. meddling in foreign politics has often turned ugly for America, but the U.S. Embassy has a wait-and-see attitude.
“U.S. meddling can be the kiss of death for something like this in the south,” he said. “Both Thai and U.S. authorities realized the best way to help is not to be too helpful. To the credit of the U.S. Embassy under the leadership of Skip Boyce, they have done a very good job of toeing the line and at the same time have not trespassed into Thai policy territory. This is a big achievement.”