Global Policy Forum

Thaksin's Loss, US's Gain


By Shawn W. Crispin*

Asia Times
February 8, 2007

Thailand's unfolding political drama pitting exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra against the military-run Council for National Security (CNS) that ousted him has cast the United States in an awkward but familiar position, where realpolitik imperatives now, as historically, have trumped Washington's stated public position of non-support to governments that seize power through anti-democratic means.

When coup makers ousted Thaksin last September 19, Washington was legally bound to suspend about US$14 million in military-to-military aid earmarked for Thailand. The US State Department on cue publicly admonished the CNS for seizing power through undemocratic means and urged a quick return to democracy, which the junta has promised for this year. That's still the State Department's public line, but President George W Bush and senior US envoys in Bangkok have signaled clearly to the junta that Washington has scant intention of downgrading bilateral relations because of the coup.

In many ways, Thailand's coup has served US regional interests well. Thailand is historically Washington's most trusted strategic ally in Southeast Asia, and US officials are leveraging their senior military contacts now in government in a bid to counterbalance China's expanding regional influence. While the US maintained strong ties with Thaksin's authoritarian administration, particularly through cooperation on counter-terrorism issues, there were concurrent concerns in Washington that the ethnically Chinese Thaksin(1) was gradually moving Thailand closer to Beijing at the United States' strategic expense.

Those concerns would help to explain why Bush received coolly last April Thaksin's pleading personal letter, where the then-embattled premier claimed "anti-democratic" forces were attempting to knock him from power through "extra-constitutional" means. Of course those anti-democratic forces - the royalist military officials who spearheaded the coup - were and remain some of the United States' best in-country contacts. And since Thaksin's ouster, to the deposed premier's apparent chagrin, the US has kept close working tabs with the junta and its interim civilian administration.

Importantly, the suspension of military aid has so far been more symbolic then substantive. As required by law, the US has suspended its International Education and Training Program for Thai military officials, but the US Defense Department has conspicuously tarried on decisions whether to scrap a joint memorandum on military-to-military logistics, an arms-procurement program that provides cheap loans to the Thai military when purchasing US hardware, the United States' continued use of U-Tapao Air Force Base, and the annual Cobra Gold joint military exercises.

"The official US policy is mandatory, but we sense the [US] Defense Department is trying to work its way around the measures," said an adviser to the Thai prime minister. "Washington understands fully well that the military is in the driver's seat and China is waiting in the wings." To underscore that point, he said, coup leader and army commander General Sonthi Boonyaratklin made a recent trip to Beijing for undisclosed reasons.

Moreover, the sanctions notably did not require the US to sever funding for the secretive Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Center (CTIC), established jointly in 2001 between the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and select Thai intelligence officials. As of 2002, the US was providing annually between $10 million and $15 million as well as advanced surveillance equipment to the CTIC, which is tasked with tracking and hunting down regional Muslim terror suspects.

According to the Washington Post, Thailand also hosted one of the CIA's now-notorious secret prisons, where Muslim terror suspects were held without trial and at times administered interrogation techniques that rights groups say are tantamount to torture. Thaksin had publicly denied the existence of any CIA prison on Thai soil, but because the US ally is not a signatory to either the United Nations Convention Against Torture or the International Criminal Court, which hypothetically could attempt to try US soldiers and CIA agents for war crimes, European diplomats contend that Thailand would be a legally logical and secure location for such a facility. (US officials in Bangkok have consistently declined comment on the secret-prison allegations.)

That said, senior Thai police counter-terrorism officials have openly carped that US Federal Bureau of Investigation terror-related sting operations have frequently impinged on Thai sovereignty. Despite these official complaints, and Thaksin's push for a highly unpopular free-trade agreement with the US, the anti-government demonstrations that paved the way for his military ouster notably never took on an anti-US bent - as did, for instance, the popular uprising of 1973 that led to the downfall of the corrupt and heavy-handed regime of then-US-backed Field Marshals Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charusathien.

Xenophobic energies

The anti-Thaksin movement concentrated its xenophobic energies instead on Singapore, which through its state-run investment vehicle Temasek purchased Thaksin's family-held Shin Corporation in a controversial $1.9 billion transaction only months before his ouster. The CNS has since inflamed still-simmering popular resentments against Singapore, accusing the island state of using the satellite it purchased from Thaksin to tap the mobile-telephone conversations of senior military officials.

That the CNS has played its foreign-bogey card against Singapore rather than the US underscores the strong personal connections top coup makers have with senior US political and military officials. While Thaksin pays US lobbyists to plead his case on Capitol Hill, in Bangkok US officials are leveraging their military contacts to score diplomatic points over China, which has pursued its diplomacy toward Thailand more through political and economic rather than military channels.

The US military jump-started Thailand's move toward capitalism, pumping more than $2.5 billion between 1951 and 1975 in military-related aid into the country to develop a regional bulwark against the spread of communism. During those decades of authoritarian military rule, the US often assisted in suppressing government opponents, including pro-democracy activists, and the CIA frequently meddled in Thailand's domestic politics.(2)

Fast-forward to the present, and it's no surprise when a Bangkok-based US diplomat confirms that US-Thai military-to-military relations have remained firmly "on track" despite the suspension in aid. Noted one longtime Thai observer: "The US is saying to itself: they may be generals, but they're our generals."

Indeed, current premier and former army commander General Surayud Chulanont received military-college training in the US and his presence in senior military leadership positions was, according to one US diplomat, a factor in Washington's 2003 decision to elevate Thailand to the status of a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, a distinction that paved the way for the country to purchase state-of-the-art US military equipment, including, presumably, the helicopters now circling Bangkok on national-security patrols.

Former intelligence chief, new constitution-drafting chairman and pivotal behind-the-scenes coup maker Prasong Soonsiri was trained and some say retained for a stint in the 1980s by the CIA, and is now known to have close personal relations with US Ambassador to Thailand Ralph "Skip" Boyce. The two developed their friendship during the Thai-speaking Boyce's previous two postings to Thailand.

Most significant, perhaps, former prime minister and current Chief Privy Councilor Prem Tinsulanonda, seen by many as the mastermind behind last year's coup, has strong Cold War ties to several senior US Republican Party operators. During a private dinner in 2000 sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, in a speech Prem voiced his "heartfelt" appreciation to Paul Wolfowitz, then the school's dean, for his role in assisting Thailand after Vietnamese communist troops invaded neighboring Cambodia in 1979 and threatened to continue their march into Thailand.

While publicly condemning the Khmer Rouge for their atrocities, the US simultaneously and clandestinely commenced funneling so-called "non-lethal" supplies, including radio equipment, to the murderous Maoist group to help it hold the line against Vietnam on Thailand's eastern border. It was a controversial decision that re-cemented bilateral ties after a rocky period when the US abruptly pulled out of Thailand after the Vietnam War - lasting ties that have influenced Washington's decision concerning which side to take during Thailand's current political standoff.

Repeating history

To some, the US has today made a similarly controversial policy position in supporting the coup makers who ousted a twice democratically elected leader. While publicly lamenting Thailand's retreat from democracy, and more recently criticizing protectionist economic policies that threaten certain US business interests, in private US officials have persistently reaffirmed to Thailand's ruling generals Washington's long-term commitment to keeping bilateral ties on track.

During last November's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hanoi, Bush met with Surayud on the sidelines and conveyed that Washington "understood" Thailand's political situation. The following month, his father, former president George H W Bush, paid a personal private visit to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej - widely viewed in Thailand as a symbolic endorsement of the royalist coup.

For Washington, last year's military takeover has presented a unique opportunity to steal a march from China, which through soft economic power has seen Beijing consolidate strong alliances in neighboring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. It is therefore no coincidence that Thaksin, spurned by what he perceived to be his former US ally, has chosen to launch his anti-junta propaganda campaign, in attempted divide-and-rule fashion, from China and Singapore.

In recent interviews with the mainstream Western media, Thaksin has endeavored - doubtless at the advice of his Washington-based private lobbyists and public relations consultants who arranged the appointments - to portray himself poignantly as a popularly elected leader who has been ousted through illegal means.

International publications, including those previously sharply critical of Thaksin's style of governance, have dutifully played up those themes - though at the time of the coup Thaksin was no longer legally Thailand's elected leader after annulled democratic elections in April, and in spite of his illiberal record of promoting extrajudicial killings of drug suspects and disappearances of Muslim militant suspects, and his systematic and punitive suppression of press freedom.

More seasoned observers draw parallels between Thaksin's current propaganda pitch with former Thai fascist leader Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, who from exile in the 1940s criticized the monarchy and portrayed himself as a man of the people, and who on retaking power years later presided over a hard-knuckled, illiberal and corrupt military-led regime that at times ran counter to Washington's wishes.(3) Washington, it appears, has come to a similar conclusion about Thaksin's usefulness to the United States' future interests.

One well-placed source close to Ambassador Boyce says that the US no longer views Thaksin as a "political factor" and that to date Washington believes the junta is doing a "satisfactory" job of administering the country. Should Boyce be proved wrong and one day Thaksin return to political prominence - perhaps hypothetically after the passing of King Bhumibol - the US can probably count on a piqued Thaksin avenging the perceived snub by moving Thailand closer into China's regional orbit.

It's a calculated risk Washington is clearly willing to take and, at least for now, Thaksin's loss is the United States' gain.


(1) Although Thaksin pledged allegiance to his US roots during a visit to his alma mater Sam Houston State University, where he joked that Texas was his second home, many perceived his pilgrimage to the grave markers of his ancestors in China's Fujian province as the more meaningful personal connection.

(2) See Daniel Fineman's excellent A Special Relationship: The United States and Military Government in Thailand, 1947-1958, University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

(3) When Phibun was subsequently ousted in an internal 1957 putsch led by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who more than Phibun favored the United State's foreign-investment-led development model, the US State Department issued a statement three days later affirming the military coup would not alter bilateral relations.

About the Author: Shawn W. Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor.

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