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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 7, 2008
ASIA HAND
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 Afghanistan.

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, 2008)

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.

Abusive ally
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 swcrispin@atimes.com.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Thai tensions underline regional woes (Oct 29,'08)

Thaksin falls foul of Thai courts
(Oct 22,'08)

Asia's pickle with people power (Sep 17,'08)

US and Thailand: Allies in torture
(Jan 25,'08)


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