Thursday, September 17, 2009

U.S.-Thai Exercise Under Cloud of 2006 Bangkok Coup



U.S.-Thai Exercise Under Cloud of 2006 Bangkok Coup


The 26th Cobra Gold joint exercise between Thailand and U.S. military forces kicked off May 8 at Jomtien under a cloud of political uncertainty. Scheduled to run until May 18, this year’s exercise is the first since the September military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Following the coup, the United States suspended $24 million in military aid and canceled military education programs. But the Cope Tiger air force exercises involving Thailand, Singapore and the United States went forward in February in Thailand, and CARAT, the Thai-U.S. naval exercise, is scheduled for this summer.

During Cobra Gold, roughly 3,000 Thai troops along with 2,000 U.S. forces will conduct humanitarian, civic action and peacekeeping missions, including a computer simulation staff exercise and field training exercises.

Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, India, Italy, Malaysia, Mongolia, South Korea, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom will participate in the Multinational Planning Augmentation Team. China, France, Germany and the Philippines have sent observers. Singapore, Japan and Indonesia are participating in the United Nations’ planning cell.

“Singaporean forces will participate in the computer-simulated staff exercise, where we expose our combined force to peace-support operations in a complex environment, requiring them to interact with United Nations agencies, governmental and non-governmental organizations while dealing with civil and military issues,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Joel Stark, media support officer for Cobra Gold.

He said the U.N. planning cell “adds a whole new dimension to Cobra Gold by providing a training partner that has its own dynamics, mission and operating procedures.”

According to a statement by the U.S. Pacific Command, “The exercise will demonstrate Joint and Multinational capability and interoperability to conduct United Nations sanctioned Peace Support Operations (PSO), contingency response planning and execution.”

Instability Concerns

The statement belies deep concerns over a growing Muslim insurgency in the south of Thailand and the stability of the new military regime in Bangkok.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, put the coup in perspective.

“The continuation of the Cobra Gold exercises in view of the coup and trade row indicates that Thai-U.S. relations are primarily driven by their military-security pillar rather than political and economic,” he said. “The Cobra Gold exercises are resilient and also suggestive of the U.S.’ priority on mil-mil cooperation.

“It’s as if the Thai armed forces and U.S. military are respectively autonomous and substantially insulated from the cut-and-thrust, topsy-turvy politics of the day,” Pongsudhirak said. “This is amazing, a testimony to the strength and backbone of the bilateral relationship, because Thai-U.S. relations are broadly rocky now due to the coup and post-coup.”

He warned that U.S. assistance to Bangkok to deal with the insurgency in the south could backfire in the domestic political environment.

“However, the U.S. would be well-advised not to extend its mil-mil beyond the Cobra Gold framework,” Pongsudhirak said. “A recent U.S. offer to help the Thai Army with the raging southern Muslim insurgency was flatly rejected. The Thai Army may have been interested, but it is just politically unpalatable at home to domestic audiences. Sometimes and in some areas, U.S. assistance is like the kiss of death.”

Coup watchers believe that Washington and Bangkok are nervous about future politics in both capitals. Bangkok will be watching the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and Washington will be waiting for the return of democracy in Thailand. Both have the potential of derailing the relationship.

Pongsudhirak said the tenuous relationship between the United States and Thailand is “hostage to what happens domestically in the U.S. and in Thailand. ... Thai domestic developments are likely to get worse, perhaps another coup or delayed election or potential violence. The likely adverse outcomes in Thailand will further test the bilateral relationship.”

Will the military relationship, including Cobra Gold, continue?

“We may be reaching some limits, even on mil-mil, given how things will pan out domestically in Thailand,” he said.

“Folks in the U.S. should brace themselves for a more unstable and volatile Thai landscape and hold tight to their priorities and the longtime bilateral alliance,” Pongsudhirak said. “Thailand has been a good, proven friend, and vice versa. This will continue irrespective of what happens in Bangkok.”