What Obama means to Bangkok
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Balloons popped, confetti fell and the assembled cheered the
announcement that Barack Obama was officially elected the next president of the
United States. The US Embassy sponsored event bid to highlight the resilience
of US democracy, significantly at a time its erstwhile ally Thailand finds its
own nominally democratic system in peril.
It is precisely in places like Thailand that Obama will need to repair once
strong, now strained bilateral alliances and reaffirm the US's commitment to
democracy and human rights in its foreign policy, both to restore America's
flagging credibility as a force for democratic good and to forestall China's
recent gains in
the region, which have come by and large at the US's expense.
Outgoing President George W Bush's singular concentration on the "war on
terror", of which Southeast Asia was the campaign's less militarized second
front, came at a high cost to US credibility - including with its key strategic
ally Thailand. Bangkok was a reluctant signatory to Bush's military campaigns,
providing a small number of troops to the coalition of the willing in Iraq
while allowing US warplanes access its U-Tapao air base during runs to and from
Thailand also participated in the controversial covert dimensions of the
campaign, where Thai intelligence agents worked hand-in-hand with their US
counterparts at a joint counterterrorism center created in 2001. That entailed
some less than democratic exercises, including the apprehension and hand-off
without due process of law into US custody of at least one major terror
suspect, Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali.
It also served as willing host to one of the Central Intelligence Agency's
(CIA) secret prison sites, where terror suspects sent from third countries were
detained and apparently tortured by Thailand-based US agents at a Thai military
base. Thai officials have denied the claim, which was first reported in a
Washington Post story and later reconfirmed by US officials and media amid the
controversy that erupted over the CIA's use of water-boarding while
interrogating terror suspects. (See
US and Thailand: Allies in torture, Asia Times Online, January 25,
There are also unanswered questions about the US's role in southernmost
Thailand, where a Muslim insurgency has raged since January 2004. The renewed
conflict followed on reports that Hambali and other terror suspects had taken
refuge in Thailand's southern hinterlands after being flushed out of Malaysia
after an alleged terror plot against US interests was upended in Singapore,
another key US strategic ally in the region.
Then, US officials were critical of Thailand's inability to manage its borders
and some analysts believe that former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's 2003 "war on
dark influences" campaign - which took a disproportionate human toll in the
deep south - was at least partially a response to US pressure to rein in the
crime-ridden and often lawless region.
The US has maintained throughout that the escalating conflict is an internal
Thai affair and not a front in its war on terror campaign. Officials have
consistently denied US military or intelligence officials have played any role
in Thailand's often controversial counterinsurgency exercises, which have been
hounded by reports of disappeared and tortured militant suspects by Thai police
and military officials.
Bush had his way with Thailand due largely to the two sides' long time
strategic and economic engagement, where formal diplomatic relations date back
over 175 years. US military support was instrumental in Thailand's defeat of
China-backed communist guerillas during the Cold War and Bangkok's enduring
wariness of Beijing's intentions - at least until recently - had kept Thailand
firmly in the US's regional strategic orbit.
Thailand is also highly dependent on exports to the US for its economic growth.
Rather than pushing for democratic progress in exchange for strategic and
economic privilege, the Bush administration goaded regional countries -
including Thailand - to cooperate with its counterterrorism policies in
exchange for preferential bilateral free trade agreements.
While the Bush administration took strategic advantage of Thailand's
hospitality, China simultaneously made new inroads through its "soft power"
diplomacy, which emphasized bilateral trade and investment initiatives. That
included a bilateral free-trade agreement where the US was unable to come to
terms for a similar agreement. Beijing was able to leverage that economic
goodwill to strategic ends culminating in the first ever bilateral naval
exercises between Thailand and China in 2005. Thai military officials have also
recently observed major Chinese military exercises and purchased major
Chinese-made military hardware.
Thaksin's willingness to promote defense ties with China came at the US's
direct strategic expense and many observers believe that's one reason
Washington's reaction to the September 2006 military coup that ousted a
democratically elected government was so muted. A small dollop of US military
assistance was suspended after the coup and months later US and Thai troops
held uninterrupted their annual Cobra Gold joint military exercises, the
largest in Asia.
Many of the coup-makers were known US allies, including alleged masterminds and
former CIA-trained spy chief Prasong Soonsiri and Privy Council president Prem
Tinsulanonda. Prasong has openly accepted his role in the coup, while top royal
advisor Prem has denied any involvement. While Thaksin has on numerous
occasions visited China while in exile, he has failed to travel to the US,
where he attended university.
Mixed US signals about its actual commitment to democracy promotion have
arguably shored up Thailand's resurgent reactionary forces, including an
emboldened and politically active military. The US has stood back studiously
from Thailand's current political turmoil, where Thaksin's embattled supporters
in government claim to uphold democracy while his military-backed detractors in
the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) aim to overhaul Thai democracy
through less elected and more appointed parliamentarians.
One government insider says that US ambassador Eric John has impressed on army
commander General Anupong Paochinda that the US's soft response to the 2006
coup would be much firmer should the military launch another intervention to
seize power and suspend democracy. That may or may not be true. PAD co-leader
Sondhi Limthongkul, on the other hand, said in a recent interview that the US
had long ago lost its legitimacy to preach to Thailand about democracy in light
of its own recent democratic failings.
That sentiment underscores the perceptions that the Bush administration abused
the large store of Thai goodwill towards the US. With Obama's election, hopes
are high here that a more democratic-minded and less militaristic US will move
quickly to restore principle to its foreign policy, shifting back towards a
more genuine promotion of mutual interests.
To be sure, there are nascent regional concerns that the US will lurch towards
more trade protectionism under Obama, likely implemented through tougher labor
and environmental standards on the region's merchandise and other exports. But
as US financial markets' collapse and US consumption is expected to
substantially diminish, the time is ripe for the US to redefine its diplomacy
towards the region. Even after eight years of Bush-led abuses, a fresh and
genuine US commitment to democracy promotion would be a powerful comparative
advantage in the region vis-a-vis authoritarian China.
One US diplomat noted aside that two democratically elected leaders, Prime
Minister Somchai Wongsawat and Bangkok governor Apirak Kosayothin, were both
invited to Wednesday's US election gala, while ranking members of the Thai
military were not in attendance, including top 2006 coup-maker General Sonthi
Boonyaratklin, who apparently had requested but was denied an invitation. It's
a symbolic gesture many gathered at the event, and this writer in particular,
hope Obama will build on through policies and actions in the years ahead.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at[email protected]