The Republic and the Kingdom: Time for Mutual Respect and Continuity
December 21, 2011
Sometimes the closest relationships are the hardest to manage. Thailand is the United States’ longest-standing ally in Asia, yet relationships with this ally will be among the hardest to handle as U.S. foreign-policy makers look ahead to 2012 and beyond.
Bound together by the geostrategic environment during the Cold War, the republic and the kingdom found common cause. Thailand understood and respected the interests and goals of the United States. In return, the United States strongly supported key Thai institutions, including the monarchy, the military, and the development of the Thai business elite.
The U.S.-Thailand relationship has been a pillar of U.S. strategic and commercial engagement in Asia. On Valentine’s Day 1861, King Mongkut of Siam wrote to U.S. president James Buchanan offering the use of elephants for hard labor and transportation in the U.S. civil war. The letter, which took some time to arrive by ship, was received by Buchanan’s successor, Abraham Lincoln, and politely declined noting a concern about the suitability of the climate and logistics. Since then, Thais and Americans have fought wars together and found common strategic intent.
Over the last 15 years, however, the bilateral relationship has struggled to find alignment. Thailand’s perception of the U.S. response to its desperate situation during the Asian financial crisis, which started in 1997, was, at worst, betrayal—and, at best, failure to extend a hand to a friend in need.
Ironically, the financial crisis coincided with a significant shift in Thai politics. The unbearable pressure on the Chuan government to execute the measures required by the International Monetary Fund left the Democrat Party’s flanks open to a populist and nationalist political movement headed by a savvy former policeman and entrepreneur named Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party took advantage of a relatively new Thai constitution and swept into power with a landslide victory in 2001 as Thais voted for a government they believed would put their economic interests first.
Thaksin’s time as leader of the country was controversial. Although he promoted himself and his party to larger majorities in the 2005 elections with populist measures well liked in the heavily populated northeastern and central parts of the country, his family continued to capitalize on his position and amassed significant wealth. In many cases, family members challenged incumbent positions in companies and real estate firms held by long-established elites, the same people who had advanced their positions during the Cold War alignment with the United States.
In 2006, Thaksin was removed by a military coup d’état, marking the beginning of a period of serious political uncertainty in Thailand. The coup revealed the deep divisions in Thai society and presented a historical challenge to the country’s institutions. Today, Thais remain locked in the throes of this battle to define their country’s polity. The strife is characterized by levels of emotion and commitment that are existential for many Thais. Their positions on politics have become declarations of who they view themselves to be, and for some, this fight has become a zero-sum game.
This highly charged environment presents the United States with a dilemma. How can and should the United States engage Thailand and promote stronger relations? The question is important, as Thailand has been a core member of ASEAN since its founding on Thai soil in 1967. While relations with other ASEAN countries have expanded and deepened remarkably in the last several years, U.S. relations with Thailand remain very sensitive. Members of a Thai royalist sect protested noisily outside of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok last week, claiming the United States was trying to intervene in internal issues by expressing its concern about the recent aggressive enforcement of lèse-majesté laws that have included the jailing of Lerpong Wichikhammat (also known as Joe Gordon), an American citizen of Thai descent.
At a time when many countries in Southeast Asia are clearly responding to the voices of their voters and the power of their citizens, developments in Thailand that appear to roll back democratic values—such as coups and limits on the Internet, media freedoms, and freedom of speech—will be hard for the United States to manage, especially when they directly affect U.S. citizens.
On these issues, the United States would do well to stick to the pillars of its foreign policy and remain an advocate for democracy, a supporter of human rights, and a champion of basic civil rights.
Trends globally, and more recently in Southeast Asia, have shown that history is on the side of these liberties, and Thailand, whose ties with the United States date back to 1833, knows well that these issues are important to the United States and that the country will speak out on them. Thailand would do well to respect the United States’ position and hear it out.
At the same time, the United States should respect Thailand and the Thai people, and it should tread lightly to avoid allowing its positions to become part of the debate in the high-stakes political game under way in the kingdom. The United States should work with serious intent and commitment to build on its considerable engagement with Thailand, emphasizing cooperation in areas such as trade and investment and military-to-military ties including training and interoperability. People-to-people ties are another area that should be emphasized, encouraging more cooperation among Thai and American schools, nongovernment organizations, and other entities.
At some point in the near to mid-term, Thailand will achieve a political reckoning. What that will look like is unknowable, but it will be a situation that must be controlled and defined by Thais. No country, including the United States, should seek to influence that outcome.
Thailand, however, should respect the fact that its partners and strategic allies such as the United States have long-standing interests and presence in the kingdom. As Thailand works to reconcile its political differences, those interests should be respected and protected.
This is not the time to press Thailand for significant steps forward on foreign policy or trade. Rather, it is a time to provide support and assurances that the United States is a long-term partner committed to Thailand’s peace and prosperity.
By remaining true to their core principles, the United States and Thailand will be able to successfully navigate the challenges of the coming months and years. Neither country should ask the other to abandon its principles or retreat from the strong natural affinity and deep engagement that binds them together. The republic and the kingdom will eventually deepen their alliance and alignment, but in the near term, Thailand needs room to resolve its internal differences and define itself.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.