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December 19, 2008
U.S.-Thailand relations are of interest to Congress because of Thailand's status as a long-time military ally and a significant trade and economic partner. However, ties have been complicated by deep political and economic instability in the wake of the September 2006 coup that displaced Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. After December 2007 parliamentary elections returned many of Thaksin's supporters to power, the U.S. government lifted the restrictions on aid imposed after the coup and worked to restore bilateral ties. Since then, street demonstrations have rocked Bangkok, two prime ministers have been forced to step down because of court decisions, and a tenuous new coalition has taken over the government. Many questions remain on how relations will fare as Bangkok seeks political stability. With Thai nationalism apparently on the rise, some analysts see a risk of drift in the U.S.-Thai relationship, although no major shift in overall cooperation.
Despite differences on Burma policy and human rights issues, shared economic and security interests have long provided the basis for U.S.-Thai cooperation. Thailand contributed troops and support for U.S. military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq and was designated as a major non-NATO ally by President Bush in December 2003. Thailand's airfields and ports play a particularly important role in U.S. global military strategy, including having served as the primary hub of the relief effort following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The high-profile arrest of radical Islamic leader Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, in a joint Thai-U.S. operation in 2003 underscores Thailand's very active role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The U.S.-Thai bilateral trade total in 2007 was over $30 billion.
Since 2006, Thai politics have been dominated by a fight between populist forces led by Thaksin (now in exile) and his opponents: a mix of conservative royalists and military figures, and other Bangkok elites. Until the political turmoil of 2006, Thaksin and his populist Thai Rak Thai party had consolidated broad control of Thai politics through a series of electoral successes beginning in 2001. Like Thaksin, none of the successive governments has been able to stem the violence of an insurgency in the southern majority-Muslim provinces. A series of attacks by insurgents and counter-attacks by security forces has reportedly claimed over 3,300 lives since January 2004.
With its favorable geographic location and broad-based economy, Thailand has traditionally been considered among the most likely countries to play a major leadership role in Southeast Asia and has been an aggressive advocate of increased economic integration in the region. A founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Thailand maintains close ties with China and is pursuing FTAs with a number of other countries. Given its ties with the United States, Thailand's stature in the region may affect broader U.S. foreign policy objectives and prospects for further multilateral economic and security cooperation in Southeast Asia. In the context of the Pentagon's transformation and realignment initiatives, current logistical facilities in Thailand could become more important to U.S. strategy in the region. This report will be updated periodically.
Contents Introduction Thailand's Political Framework Political Developments Since 2006 Coup Large-Scale Street Protests and a New Prime Minister Violence in the Southern Provinces Background to the Current Conflict Failure of Successive Governments' Approach Emerging Patterns in the Insurgency Little Evidence of Transnational Elements Leadership of Insurgency Unclear Thailand Politics and Government Thaksin's Rise and Fall Military Coup Ousts Thaksin TRT Disbanded Constitutional Referendum December 2007 Election Results U.S. Response U.S.-Thailand Political and Security Relations A Long-Standing Southeast Asian Ally Impact of the 2006 Coup Support for U.S. Operations Asia Pacific Military Transformation Bilateral Security Cooperation Security Assistance Military Exercises Train Intelligence Law Enforcement Counter-Narcotics Human Rights and Democracy Concerns Under Thaksin Coup and Aftermath U.S.-Thailand Trade and Economic Relations U.S.-Thailand FTA Negotiations An Aggressive FTA Strategy Thailand in Asia Growing Ties with China Divergence with United States on Burma (Myanmar) Policy Refugee Situation ASEAN Relations Contacts Author Contact Information
An American treaty ally since 1954, Thailand was long praised as an economic and democratic success story. The U.S.-Thai relationship, solidified during the Cold War, strengthened on the basis of shared economic and strategic interests. Although some Thais were disappointed that the United States did not do more to assist Thailand after the devastating 1997-1998 financial crisis, trade and defense relations continued to develop. Access to military facilities and sustained military-to-military cooperation made Thailand an important element of U.S. strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific. After several decades of mostly military dictatorships, by the early 1990s Thailand established democratic rule, further bolstering its status as a primary U.S. partner in maintaining stability in Southeast Asia.
By the turn of the century, U.S.-Thai relations appeared to further accelerate. Designated as a major non-NATO ally in 2003, Thailand contributed troops and support for U.S. military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had consolidated control of politics and was seen as likely to assume a major leadership role in ASEAN. Thaksin embraced the U.S.-led war on terrorism in the region, a role highlighted by the high-profile 2003 arrest of a radical Islamic leader in a joint Thai-U.S. operation. The start of negotiations in June 2004 for a U.S.-Thailand Free Trade Agreement (FTA) marked Thailand's possible entry into the expanding American web of trade pacts with political allies.
Bilateral ties began to fray, however, as concerns about Thaksin's governance emerged and then with the 2006 coup. Critics charged that his administration stifled Thailand's democratic institutions, prioritized the wealth of his family and affiliates, and proved incompetent in dealing with a nascent insurgency in the Muslim-majority southern provinces of Thailand. Deep divisions within Thai society and power struggles between the old guard and Thaksin's team surfaced and then exploded with the military coup that deposed Thaksin in September 2006. In the political turmoil that followed, the United States strived to maintain the relationship while simultaneously imposing penalties for the interruption of democratic rule. Military aid, suspended after the coup, was reinstated after elections in December 2007, but as successive administrations have struggled to hold on to power, new uncertainty about the durability of the alliance has emerged.
One of the primary motivations for maintaining strong relations with Bangkok is the ongoing competition with Beijing for influence in Southeast Asia. Thailand, long known for its ability to keep good relations with all parties, enjoys strong economic, political, and cultural ties with both China and the United States. Mindful of geopolitics, the United States is attempting to balance its strategic needs with its imperative to remain a champion of democracy in the region.
Thailand's Political Framework
Managing the U.S. relationship with Thailand has become increasingly challenging as divisions in Thai society have become more pronounced. The recent turmoil in Thailand (see below) underscores a growing divide between the rural, mostly poor population and the urban middle class, largely based in Bangkok. By stoking Thai nationalism and providing inexpensive health care and other support to rural communities, Thaksin galvanized a populist movement in Thailand, with the support leading to emphatic electoral victories for his Thai Rak Thai Party, and, more recently, the successor People's Power Party (PPP). This success threatened the traditional model of governance, which combines a powerful military backed by the royal family, an elite corps of bureaucrats, and a relatively weak executive government. Thaksin's rise and fall--and the role he continues to play in Thai politics---have brought these two camps into competition and exposed deep divisions within Thai society.
The power of the palace, and particularly the intense popularity of the king himself, provides an important pillar of stability. King Bhumiphol, who has served since 1946, commands tremendous respect and loyalty from the Thai public and continues to exercise influence over politics. The king is 81 years old and reportedly in poor health, giving rise to anxiety about succession. Due to stringent lese-majeste laws, the issue of royal continuity is never discussed in the press.
Political Developments Since 2006 Coup
Politics in Thailand have been in a state of turmoil since early 2006, particularly so after a military coup ousted Thaksin Shinawatra as Prime Minister in September 2006. After the coup, an interim military government took power, generally proving to be ineffective at governance but orchestrating relatively clean …