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Thailand in Crisis: Options for U.S. Policy
By Murray Hiebert (@MurrayHiebert1), Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies, CSIS
The CSIS Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies hosted a “Thailand in Crisis: Scenarios and Policy Responses” conference on May 13. Speakers explored why Thailand matters to the United States, Thai politics in historical perspective, and how the crisis will shape the future Thai political order, and delved into policy options for the United States.
The conference was held in the midst of months-long disruptive protests in Bangkok led by the antigovernment People’s Democratic Reform Council aimed at toppling the Pheu Thai government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which is backed by her brother, exiled former prime minister Thaksin. Yingluck was ousted by the Constitutional Court a week before the conference for illegally transferring a top civil servant three years earlier.
Senior U.S. officials speaking at the conference stressed the importance of the United States’ relations with Thailand, which was the first Asian nation to establish diplomatic relations with the United States and remains one of its largest trade and investment partners. Bangkok is home to one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world and the base from which the United States launches many of its aid and training programs in Southeast Asia. The United States and Thailand work closely together on regional security, including peacekeeping initiatives, counternarcotics enforcement, and antipiracy programs. Much of the limited military-to-military cooperation between the United States and Myanmar is done in cooperation with Thailand.
Several panelists warned about the possibility of serious violence erupting in Bangkok with militant factions on both sides of the dispute obtaining weapons from their military supporters and across the border from Cambodia. Some felt the vitriolic dispute will become worse before any compromise can be reached. The current standoff began in 2005 and some warned that it will likely continue for another 10 years with both sides determined to be holding the prime minister’s seat when the royal succession takes place after the current, highly revered king, who has been on the throne for 67 years, dies.
Over the past century, Thai politics has often been bumpy, but the political culture has had “shock absorbers” to cushion the bumps and get the country back to a political middle, one panelist observed. This time, however, the normal “reset buttons”—a coup followed by the drafting of a new constitution and a new round of elections that bring to power officials who soon alienate large swaths of the electorate, prompting another cycle of change—is not working. This is due in part to the fact that Thaksin keeps winning elections and the opposition Democrat Party has not mounted reforms that would help it compete with the populism of its opponent.
Amy Searight, the top Defense Department official responsible for Southeast Asia, said the United States is “reasonably confident” the Thai military will not stage another coup despite the ongoing turmoil. Other panelists pointed out that the military has actually tried to play a mediating role between the two sides to mitigate the conflict, but the opposition has rejected its overtures. So the military has looked to the courts, the election commission, and the national anticorruption agency to help engineer its return to power.
Conference participants expressed concern that the political crisis is causing Thailand’s alliance with the United States to underperform and is holding back ASEAN on a number of fronts, particularly because Thai ministers or acting ministers have not been able to travel or participate fully in meetings in recent months. Although Thailand hosted the Cobra Gold military exercises in February, many other joint meetings or events with the United States or neighbors are largely on hold.
Participants agreed that, in the end, the crisis can only be solved by the Thais themselves. It is not one that foreigners can fix. Still, many thought there were a few things that supportive foreigners could do on the margins of the intractable and highly emotional divide.
One recommendation is for the United States to keep stressing, mostly in private meetings with Thai leaders across the political spectrum, the unacceptability of the Thai military staging a coup, the critical importance of maintaining the principles of democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights, and the necessity of avoiding violence and bloodshed. Some recommended sending a group of either prominent Americans or an international delegation including senior political figures such as former senator Richard Lugar, who long served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to have quiet conversations with leaders on both sides of the conflict about ways to resolve the standoff peacefully and through democratic means.
Others suggested that Americans and other international players could play an important service as bridge builders by bringing small groups of Thai protagonists together for meals and quiet conversations. The goal would be to bring together people who cannot be seen meeting publically in the current confrontational atmosphere in an effort to try to recapture a middle ground. Because U.S. Embassy statements supporting democracy have been condemned by the opposition as siding with the government against the protestors, some suggested that U.S. initiatives and statements must originate from Washington if they are to have any effect.
Participants also discussed forming an eminent persons group of private Thais and Americans who could meet and make suggestions to the U.S. government and the Thai protagonists about steps to address the crisis. Thailand’s seven major business associations have tried to mediate between the two factions, but they were spurned much like the military was. This prompted some to urge that U.S. business groupings (such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the US-ASEAN Business Council) should use their connections with Thai political leaders to talk quietly about the importance of resolving the impasse before it undermines Thai competiveness in the region and prompts companies to look to neighbors for alternative locations for their investment projects.
For the United States to continue to play a key role in Thailand, it will be important for the Senate to quickly confirm a new U.S. ambassador once he or she is nominated to ensure there is no gap in Bangkok at this sensitive time.
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