Over the last couple of months, one of America's two treaty
allies in Southeast Asia turned the page on a period of intense
political instability. And it did so democratically. Americans
should take a moment to acknowledge Thailand as a member in good
standing of the democratic club that is America's system of
alliances in East Asia and the Pacific.
Reminders of an Undemocratic, Unstable
The most recent chapter of Thai political history began a little
more than two years ago. On September 19, 2006, the military staged
a coup to unseat and essentially exile Thailand's elected prime
minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Despite 14 years of uninterrupted
democratic governance, global perceptions of a Thailand beset with
chronic political instability quickly returned.
The unelected military-backed government exacerbated negative
perceptions by mangling the Thai economy. And where the new
government was widely expected to outperform the previous
administration--dealing with the southern Islamist insurgency--it
Then, at the end of 2007, after absorbing a coup, suffering
under a year of inept government, and approving a new constitution
designed to deflate the powers of the prime minister, new elections
returned to government proxies for Thaksin and his disbanded Thai
Rak Thai Party (TRT). Thailand appeared to pick up right where it
left off in September 2006: Political strife dominated 2008; two
prime ministers were forced from power; protests escalated to the
point of shutting down Bangkok's airports; and the economy dragged
through the year.
A Welcome Turn of Events
As 2008 drew to a close, pressure for another coup grew. But
then something positive happened: Democracy provided a channel for
government to change hands. Was the transfer of power pretty? No.
Did it involve political trade-offs? Certainly. But expediency--as
well as opacity--in democratic politics is a matter of degree, not
In a parliamentary system, legitimate change in government is
possible without proximate appeal to general elections. The
Democrat party pulled enough sitting MPs away from the latest
iteration of a Thaksin-based party and its coalition partners to
form a new government under the leadership of opposition leader
Critics point to the messiness of the process and nefarious
connections among Thai royalty, military, politicians, bureaucrats,
and judges. Political intrigue makes for good copy. But in an
environment as prone to rumor as Bangkok, and with so much at
stake, it is important to separate out the facts.
First, it is a matter of public record that army> commander
General Anupong Paochinda urged the prime minister to resign.
Second, it is a fact that in October, the queen attended the
funeral of a protester killed in a clash with police. Both were
very powerful gestures in Thai politics. But they do not amount to
a coup. Nor do they explain the formation of the new Democrat
government, or the Democrats' victories in subsequent by-elections.
Disillusionment with the Thaksin-proxies in the electorate and
factional cracks in his party base were already present and
growing; pulling them apart did not require a mastermind
In 2006, the United States was right to insist that Thailand
return to democratic rule as quickly as possible. Even when some
argued that the United States's geopolitical position in the region
would suffer as a result of the pressure--China being all the
willing to step into the gap--the Bush Administration remained
focused on the longer term. It suspended more than $29 million in
assistance to Thailand, including financing for military hardware
and training for Thai officers. At the same time, however, the
Administration maintained regular diplomatic contact with the Thais
and preserved some of the most critical areas of the relationship,
including military exercises and vital counterterrorism
In 2006, the Thai military unwisely aborted a political process
that would have eventually resolved the crisis without
intervention. There are a great many variables involved in
comparing September 2006 with December 2008: Thaksin's role, the
bungling of his military appointed successors, a new constitution,
a changing electorate, and civil society fatigue. But, essentially,
the events of the last few months in Thailand prove that coup is
not an inevitable feature of Thai politics and that democracy is
stability's partner, not its enemy.
The Road Ahead
The Thai Democrat Party has a considerable amount of work to do.
The new prime minister must find a way to reach across the
political spectrum in Bangkok and elsewhere to heal the yawning
divide. The perception that his ascension to power is purely the
product of political maneuvering is refutable, but it will prove
corrosive over time. There is also a significant element of
anti-democratic class exceptionalism among the forces that brought
him to power. And there is resistance outside of Bangkok to his
Oxford-educated persona. He will have to take both issues head-on.
But ultimately these are matters for Thais to resolve.
Indeed, Americans have their own work to do. Thailand was a key
ally of the United States during the Cold War. Thais by the
thousands fought side by side with Americans in Korea and in
Vietnam. Thailand also contributed non-combat troops to the
American-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan and has served as a
critical logistics node in the movement of American forces around
But the Thais, as much as any power in the region, pay close
attention to geopolitical trends. During World War II, Thai Prime
Minister and strongman Phibunsongkhram famously asked one of his
commanders, "Which side do you think will lose this war? That side
is our enemy." And he began to hedge his early bets on the
Today it is China's rise that is the most striking fact of life
in East Asia. And its rise is not unwelcome in Thailand. This is
not necessarily a bad thing: China is an important economic partner
for both the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies. America cannot ask
our allies to recuse themselves from the opportunity China offers
any more than it can refrain from reaping the benefits itself.
What the United States can do, however, is be absolutely clear
about its long-term commitment to the region. It should intensify
its economic engagement, not retreat from it. This means embracing
free trade agreements. The proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia
Pacific now has a core around which to develop--the Trans-Pacific
Economic Partnership (TPP)--free trade negotiations underway
between eight Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation member economies. A
bilateral U.S.-Thai free-trade agreement was left on the table in
2006. America should dust it off and get negotiations moving again
with an eye toward not only completing a first-rate agreement but
including the Thais in the broader TPP.
On the diplomatic, military side, the U.S. should make clear
that it has no intention of compromising its predominance in Asia.
Such clarity demands a level of defense spending that will belie
Asian suspicions of an American superpower in decline. It also
means participating in the region's diplomatic life. This year's
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum is
being held in Thailand. Prior to the last few years, the U.S.
secretary of state's attendance was a given. Once again becoming a
reliable ASEAN participant in the year America's Thai allies host
will be well-noted in the region. President Obama should also
resurrect plans for a full-fledged U.S.-ASEAN leaders' summit, an
idea abruptly cancelled by President Bush in 2007, and schedule it
in Thailand during this year's ASEAN leaders' meetings.
Reinforcing the Alliance
America's allies are the foundation of its commitment to Asia.
These allies make policy formulation easier when they stay true to
their democratic values. When one of the allies strays, the U.S.
should help bring it back to its senses, as President Bush sought
to do with Thailand. By the same token, when one demonstrates a
commitment to the alliance's mutual values, America should use the
occasion to reinforce the relationship. It is good to have Thailand
in the club.
Walter Lohman is Director
of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.