By Michael Montesano
In Part I of this blog published on June 13, 2014, the author argued that it is not for the United States to intervene in Thai affairs to determine the future of Thailand. He writes that 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.
This U.S. program of reaffirmation and communication should begin with a few basic measures:
- Washington must place its embassy in Bangkok and consulate-general in Chiang Mai under the leadership of diplomats equipped to signal solidarity with democratic forces in Thailand. This means appointing an ambassador and high-level diplomats with serious Thai language skills and a thorough grounding in Thai intellectual life — people with the ability to engage with and debate in Thai ideas about the future of the country. These representatives of the United States must be able to offer “country team” leadership informed by their immersion in those ideas.
- The Department of Defense should work with Congress to win the right to maintain robust military-to-military engagement with Thailand. At the very least, this must include the participation of Thai officers at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, the Pacific Command’s Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, and other specialized institutions of military education, as well as that of U.S. officers at the Thai Army’s Command and General Staff College. Such participation remains crucial to U.S.-Thai relations and offers an important opportunity for the sharing of ideas, commitments, visions, and values.
- The American University Association Language Center (AUA) ought to re-orient itself as a language school whose main purpose is to foster political and social engagement and broad-based political participation among Thais. At a time when the branches of commercial English-language schools proliferate across Thailand, the AUA has accomplished little by competing head-on with these schools. It should, as it was until two decades ago, be led by a Foreign Service officer, one who is committed to the country team’s mission of affirming solidarity with democratic forces in Thai life.
- The Thailand-United States Education Foundation (Fulbright Program) must in an era when tens of thousands of Thais study overseas on their own and many Thai universities have foreigners on their faculty, work toward a carefully conceived programmatic agenda. In selecting Thai students to study in the United States and taking U.S. teachers and researchers to Thailand and selecting their fields of study, research, and teaching, it must forsake superficial notions of “cultural exchange” to focus on programs of study consistent with the interests of democratic forces in Thailand and serious research on Thai history and society. The foundation must re-organize its board to ensure support for this mission. It must appoint an executive director, whether Thai or American, who understands this mission as her or his top priority.
- Peace Corps Thailand has outlived its usefulness and ought to be closed down. The resources that would be saved should be put at the disposal of other U.S. programs in the country.
- To the degree that the Asia Foundation still receives federal funding for programs in Thailand, this funding should become strictly contingent on the foundation’s active engagement with the values shared by the United States and those Thais for whose rights and ideas the new military regime in Bangkok has such disdain. The same must be true of any East-West Center outreach activities in Thailand supported by federal funding.
- USAID Thailand must re-conceptualize its programs in accordance with an unblinkered analysis of Thai society and the forces that most share the values the United States seeks to reaffirm in the country. It should move away from dependence on “beltway bandit” contractors, some of whom have done so much damage to U.S. activities on the international scene in the past decade and a half. And like other U.S. government agencies operating in Thailand, it must learn to discern between those Thai non-governmental organizations whose idealistic visions of rural society are above all a smokescreen for depoliticization akin to that envisioned by NCPO junta and those whose goals put them in solidarity with the social forces that will count in Thailand’s future. And it should support the latter as opposed to the former.
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.