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November 18, 2012

Obama Needs to Realign Relations with Thailand Away from Elites

Very interesting article by Pavin Chachavalpongpun in Asia Sentinel about how the United States has traditionally relied upon relations with a thin layer of royalist elites in Thailand rather than the burgeoning pro-democracy movement and working class among the Red Shirts. During his visit to Asia, it’s time for President Barack Obama to update his Thailand policy.

In the meantime, the US has been rather quiet even when the Thai domestic situation turned violent, particularly in the past few years. Why has the US failed to promote democratization in Thailand?

The answer is that the American perception of the current power struggle in Thailand is strictly constrained by an old, obsolete structure in which Thai-US relations have been shaped and dominated by the effective military-monarchy partnership and the various American interests in the maintenance of such a partnership. As a result, the US has appeared to adopt a stance of support for establishment forces at the expense of a serious advocacy of the pro-democracy agenda of the Red Shirt movement, known principally as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or UDD.

Self-interest alone does not sufficiently explain unfailing American support for Thailand’s traditional elites and its seeming disapproval of the Red Shirts’ political activities. Based on extensive interviews with a number of Thai and American diplomats, I can conclude that the obstinate attitude of the US derives fundamentally from a lack of understanding of and genuine interest in Thai political development on the part of the Department of State and the American Embassy in Bangkok. (…)

The American policy of safeguarding the Thai political status quo, which has benefitted the rich and powerful elites in the kingdom, has severely narrowed the perspective of the US, and indeed its policy options, as it tries to keep up with Thailand’s unfolding political situation. (…)

President Obama could take this opportunity, during his visit to Bangkok, to get to know an alternative force in Thai politics. It is not too late for the US to come to terms with a new reality in Thailand, a reality in which the US will need to readjust its position vis-à-vis its old friends in the Thai establishment.


Read more from Red Shirts, Thai Democracy

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