By Michael Montesano
The operations of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta since its seizure of power in Thailand on May 22 have taken both foreign observers and many Thais aback, in both their tone and their substance. While no violence has accompanied either the junta’s moves to exert control over the country or resistance to those moves, its announcements summoning Thais to turn themselves in and its plan to try civilians before military courts have given Thailand’s latest coup a particularly sinister aspect. The junta has caused policymakers among Thailand’s traditional foreign partners cause for concern on two levels.
A number of Thailand’s partners are determined to do what they can both to mitigate human-rights violations under military rule and to forestall the possibility of bloodshed as the period of military rule stretches from weeks to months. They have been considering ways to leverage existing relationships in Thailand in pursuit of those goals. While understandable, such an approach suggests that these policymakers underestimate both the qualitative difference between this Thai putsch and earlier coups and the ambitions of the country’s newest military junta to reshape the Thai political order. Put more bluntly, it appears unwise to believe that relations with well-placed official contacts in Thailand can proceed on anything like the basis they had even a month ago.
On a second level, one to which foreign policymakers may have devoted less attention, those partners need to think through the future course of their friendships with Thailand. This process must take into account the specific tools that partner countries have to shape that friendship. In the case of the United States, these tools are not hard to identify. That few recognize them as tools at this critical time for Thailand testifies to the aimlessness with which Washington has approached its relationship with Bangkok for many years now.
The Department of State has criticized the putsch in terms that it considers strong. This remonstration has aroused negative sentiments toward the United States among many Thais who take a benign view of the recent armed seizure of state power in their country. These sentiments build on the negative perception of the United States’ place in Asia and enthusiasm for Chinese leadership in the region among Thai foreign policy elites, as captured in the recent CSIS report on Power and Order in Asia. There is little doubt that this perception is determined at least in part by official U.S. expressions of concern over the use of Thailand’s lèse majesté law in recent years.
Some in Thailand may accuse the United States of hypocrisy for its contrasting reactions toward the ouster of elected governments in Egypt and the Ukraine on one hand and Thailand on the other. At the same time, the State Department’s protests were consonant with values concerning political legitimacy held dear by the millions of Thais who have participated with a new level of engagement not only in national elections but also in provincial and sub-district elections during the past decade and a half. U.S. criticisms of the putsch put the United States in the company of a substantial segment of the Thai population; this segment does not labor under the anachronistic notions of “guided democracy” that seem to motivate the NCPO, and it will play a decisive role in Thailand’s political future.
It is not for the United States to intervene in Thai affairs to determine that future. The United States should, however, reaffirm its commitment to the values that it shares with millions of Thais and employ with new energy the tools that it created decades ago as a way to communicate those values.
The leader of the NCPO has recently proclaimed that Thailand and China are partners at every level. China watchers in Thailand have noted wryly that the junta has already “resumed sending tribute missions” to Beijing, while others in Bangkok have reported the omnipresence of Chinese officials in Bangkok in recent days. Some in Thailand’s foreign policy establishment understand the risks of falling too quickly into the embrace of China, and the caliber of Chinese diplomats posted to Thailand suggests that Beijing will also soon understand the risks of closely identifying with the Thai junta. This identification is already, however, a fact of history. And the undue haste with which this identification has been established presents the United States the opportunity to identify itself with another set of forces in Thailand, the forces whose cause history is likely to favor.
Mr. Michael Montesano served as a United States Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand during 1983-1985. He is now co-coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Part II of his analysis will include specific recommendations for U.S. policy.