ASIA HAND US, Thailand: A conflicted alliance
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - While President George W Bush heaped praise on Thailand, which he
recognized as the United States' oldest ally in Asia, a diplomatic debacle
played out behind the scenes.
Bush's farewell address to Asia was made symbolically in Thailand to highlight
the 175-year anniversary of US-Thai diplomatic ties while also touting his
administration's many self-professed diplomatic successes in the region,
including the widespread promotion of liberty, law and democracy.
Left unaddressed were tensions in US-Thai bilateral ties, which have risen
sharply in the wake of the September 2006 military coup that ousted
democratically elected prime minister Thaksin
Shinawatra and sparked accusations among the fallen premier's supporters that
Washington has taken sides with the military and its political allies in the
country's ongoing political conflict.
On the podium, Bush congratulated Thailand on restoring democracy, but
conspicuously refrained from commenting on the country's 16-month period of
military rule and the shadow the Thai military still casts over the political
scene. Behind the scenes, several key Thaksin allies were not invited to the
high-profile event and Thaksin himself was conspicuously absent, traveling
outside of the country.
Bush's handlers declined, even after heavy Thai government lobbying, to allow
for a question-and-answer session after his address, which inevitably would
have led to queries about the US's view of the coup, the military-drafted
constitution and the likely US reaction to any future military interventions,
which some fear may be in the offing should Thai politics deteriorate into
Thai government insiders also contended that Bush failed after heavy foreign
ministry lobbying to arrange a meeting with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was in
residence at his seaside palace in Hua Hin, about 200 kilometers south of
Bangkok. Government sources say that's because Hua Hin's airport lacks the
runway facilities to accommodate Bush's jet. The 80-year-old and highly
respected monarch notably did not opt to travel to Bangkok to greet Bush.
The diplomatic snafus come against perceptions among certain Thaksin supporters
that Bush's emissaries in Thailand, despite pro forma US public statements
condemning the temporary suspension of democracy, too swiftly and too warmly
embraced the military coup-makers, many of whom are known to have close ties to
top US officials.
While the US suspended a small amount of military aid to Thailand, it followed
through on its annual Cobra Gold joint military exercises, the region's
largest, while the Thai military was in power. Peeved Thaksin supporters recall
comments Bush made at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hanoi
soon after the 2006 coup, where in comparison he noted that Singapore wasn't
exactly democratic but was nonetheless still a good US friend.
US diplomacy with Thailand has long run on separate civilian and military
tracks and has often prioritized strategic interest over other policy goals.
From 1947 to 1958, for instance, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was
intimately involved in Thai political outcomes and America frequently supported
suppression of Thai government opponents when it served Washington's interests.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the US provided assistance to repressive military
governments and built the road infrastructure that helped Thai troops battle
communist insurgents. Now, nowhere are the conflicted US policies of democracy
promotion and strategic positioning more glaringly apparent than in Thailand.
The Bush administration's global counter-terrorism campaign, which he
highlighted heavily in his farewell speech, recast the cause for US military
involvement in Southeast Asia, including in Thailand.
Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, Washington justified, and
several regional countries welcomed, the US military role in counterbalancing
China's communist and perceived expansionist threat. When China later
effectively ditched communism for capitalism and diplomatically and
economically engaged the region, the US's past raison d'etre for a strong
strategic presence diminished.
Keen to counterbalance China's rising regional influence, which many analysts
view as coming at the expense of the US, the Bush administration highlighted
the risk of global terrorism to Southeast Asia - even in backwater countries
like Cambodia, where security analysts say the terror threat is virtually
nonexistent - as new justification for building strategic ties.
Thailand has been crucial in that campaign and the US in 2003 upgraded Bangkok
to a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, a status that
confers special military and financial advantages upon the country. US
intelligence agents already positioned in the Thai Supreme Command's so-called
JSEC units, according to one government source, were able to refocus their
Thailand also agreed in 2001 to establish a more specific joint
Counter-terrorism Intelligence Center (CTIC) in Bangkok, where CIA agents and
their Thai spy counterparts continue to gather and share information about
regional terror groups. That unit was reportedly responsible for the 2003 sting
operation that netted terror suspect Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, an alleged
high-level al-Qaeda operative who was on the run in central Thailand.
Security over liberty
That arrest, which Bush praised in a 2003 visit to Thailand, was also highly
controversial and critics contend represented a violation of Thai sovereignty
because the suspect was whisked by the Americans to an undisclosed third
country before standing trial in Thailand. The CIA also controversially tapped
Thailand to host one of its notorious secret prison sites, to where at least
two Pakistani terror suspects were transported and apparently tortured as part
of Bush's controversial rendition program.
Thailand has never publicly acknowledged the existence of the secret prison,
but US officials did after the Washington Post broke the story. Rights groups
have maintained that the US tapped Thailand for the site exactly because
Bangkok has not ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Thailand has also passed US-influenced anti-terrorism legislation in 2003,
which allows for detention without trial of terror suspects.
These strategic assets have arguably compromised the US's ability and
willingness to speak out against the 2006 coup and the military's continued
influence over Thai politics. The US's heavy in-country intelligence presence
has also bred still-unfounded suspicions among Thaksin supporters that
Washington had foreknowledge of the coup, which was orchestrated by several
Thai security and military officials with close and long-time ties to
They include CIA-trained Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri and the US-trained
General Winai Phattiyakul, former director of the Directorate of Joint
Intelligence at the Supreme Command's headquarters where US intelligence
officials are allegedly in residence. US security officials and former US
ambassador to Thailand Ralph "Skip" Boyce are also known to have generational
ties to Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda, who Thaksin's supporters
have accused of masterminding the 2006 putsch - charges the elder statesman has
Thaksin has never spoken publicly about the role of the US, but his close
associates say he was miffed by Washington's response to the coup. It was no
coincidence, they note, that he chose to air from China his critical messages
about the military government, while his high-priced lobbying efforts in
Washington failed to generate much official sympathy as a deposed democratic
leader at the White House or Capitol Hill.
While Thaksin fully cooperated with Bush's terror fight, he simultaneously
moved to put Thailand's relations with the US and China on a more equal
footing. That included new strategic overtures towards Beijing that allowed
each side to observe the other's military exercises and the staging of their
first joint naval exercises in 2005, which produced an opening to undermine the
US's near monopoly on military-to-military training in Thailand. Thaksin also
increased Thailand's arms purchases from China during his tenure.
Bush said in his speech that US diplomacy in Asia had transcended its previous
"zero sum" calculations and that a prosperous and secure region required both
countries' participation. Whether Thaksin's moves to embrace China influenced
the tepid response of the US to the 2006 coup is still a matter of conjecture.
But the fact that many in Thaksin's camp believe Bush's government put
strategic interests before its commitment to uphold democracy means the US
could lose out should Thaksin ever return to power.
1. See Daniel Fineman's A Special Relationship: The United States and Military
Government in Thailand, 1947-58, University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at [email protected]