By Ernest Z. Bower
Thailand is the ASEAN country keeping U.S. policymakers up at night. Thailand is fundamentally important to the United States. It is our oldest treaty ally in Asia and it is a core member of ASEAN. If Thailand is weak, ASEAN is inherently weak. If ASEAN is weak, the foundation for emerging regional architecture for both economic integration and security in the Asia Pacific will be undermined.
For the last seven years, we have seen Thailand focused nearly wholly on its own existential battle for control of what will be the new political structure after the reign of the revered monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thailand has not pulled its weight in regional or global affairs during this period. What observers are looking at now is either the eye or the leading edge of the other side of a political hurricane that will define Thailand’s future political landscape.
This is a real problem for the United States because we struggle to proactively engage a Thailand whose current bent is to focus internally. U.S. senior officials visiting the region have, of late, gone to visit Thailand’s neighbors instead of stopping in to see their ally. The reason is that with the political divisiveness so open and raw, it feels difficult to know where to put your foot when you visit Thailand. Any meeting officials take, color worn or head nod can be interpreted by one side or another as a political endorsement, no matter how unintended. Yet this flyover effect is taking a toll, and those that will compete for real power in the new Thailand are not being sufficiently well engaged by the United States.
To address this situation, the United States should gather every credible Thai expert it can find and delve deeply into the current situation, how Thailand got to this point, review Thailand’s feelings toward the United States starting after World War II and see how that evolved through the Asian financial crisis, the 2006 coup, up to today. Then they should run through scenarios for possible outcomes for the other side of this hurricane that is coming to Thailand, and develop responses to various scenarios.
From this exercise, a foundation could emerge that will provide the United States a basis for a more nuanced strategy worthy of Thailand’s importance and one that could provide a policy rationale for much more proactive engagement of various institutions, people and parties in Thailand. High on that list is the active military, retired military officers, and business leaders who are funding various parties and initiatives to position themselves, the current government and opposition parties and most importantly, Thai civil society organizations — the Thai people themselves.
Thailand may take a turn for a less democratic model, but one look around Southeast Asia will reveal how such models will fare — not well is the answer. Thailand’s unique problem is that once an election is decided, unless there is close alignment with the Royal Palace, there remains more than one effective power base in the country. Thailand is likely to remain divided until a real political reckoning takes place, and that is not likely to happen in February elections.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.