Friday, 23 May 2014

Thailand's Coup: Serpents in the South East Asian Tourist Paradise.

Events in Thailand took a turn towards the surreal on Tuesday 20 May 2014. The imposition of martial law was imposed without notice to the caretaker government and without much interest from the general population in Bangkok or elsewhere a country seen as a welcoming and friendly tourist haven.

This seems to be borne out by anyone who has friends living in Thailand who regularly take digital snapshots of busloads of Thais being sent in to Bangkok in order to support the government the Red Shirts ) or the opposition on the street ( the Yellow Shirts ), something regarded by expatriates as a bit of a joke.

It seemed typical of Thailand's image as a peaceful Buddhist nation that  nubile young Thai girls appeared with their mobile phones taking 'coup selfies' with soldiers who are part of a military takeover staged a temporary basis that isn't, however, a coup. The suspension of normal political activity was at first termed a 'half coup'. 

On Thursday 22nd May, confirmation came that the Thai military was going to effectively be in power from 4.30am local time to restore stability and "reform the political structure, the economy and society". What this will mean domestically for Thailand is uncertain but there is an interesting geopolitical context to the unrest.

The head of the army, General Prayuth Chan-ocha could not term the coup as a coup because Thailand is an important regional military partner in South East Asia that's supplied by the US with arms and gear. So this is a coup that cannot be called a coup,as in Egypt, because military aid under US law would be suspended..

But it could possibly become an official coup for the US if it disapproves of the side the army is effectively backing and it is not clear yet if it is going to side with the opposition to the democratically elected PM Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in the 2006 coup.

These weird political gyrations are part of the potential sea change in political allegiances set in motion by the ascendancy of China as a major economic power with gravitational pull over south east Asia against which President Obama's Pivot to Asia, the foreign policy emphasis since 2010, is purported to be a counterweight.

Bilateral ties with China have increased hugely in recent years with Thailand set to have a bilateral trade of 100 billion US dollars per annum before 2015. Even more ominous for the US is the move to boost joint boat patrols with China in the South China Sea. There is a competition for influence in Thailand between China and the US.

For a century, Thailand has had close ties with the US. However, in recent years have started to warm towards China as their 'soft power' ally. China offered financial support during the 1997 economic crisis and also US$16 million of assistance to help with the devastating 2011 floods, seventeen times more than the US.

The anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt opposition is said to be hostile to towards the Pivot to Asia as a strategy that is aimed against China. Nor do the rather inaptly named People's Democratic Reform Committee have qualms about authoritarian government and backing a coup before the accession of the new Thai king who is said to be pro-Red.

The US is concerned about Chinese inroads into Thailand and would not want a government dominated by the army generals or by those too favourable to China and hostile to a US led regional  alliance as part of a strategy to contain China. China would have no problems doing business with an authoritarian regime.

In fact, during the last government of the Democratic Party in 2010, PM Abhisit Vejjajiva firmly rejected attempts by the US to mediate between them and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and sent diplomats to Washington to complain about attempts to meddle in internal Thai affairs.

Chinese diplomats, schooled in Asian pragmatism, have realised that the noisy protests and lectures from Washington about how Thailand should, can and must be governed only leads members of Thailand's older ruling elites to look more favourably towards the Middle Kingdom. The US can no longer count on guaranteed support from Bangkok.

Even more ominously, China has attempted court the politically and economically powerful Sino-Thai minority which tends to support the Yellow Shirt opposition to the Thaksins and the rural masses who overwhemingly back the Red Shirts against the older elites in the monarchy-military nexus'.

Given that the Red Shirts have already spelt out consequences if the coup leads to a restoration of the old regime and a reversal of democracy, China's ' race-based diplomacy' could impose hitherto absent ethnic enmities on to sharp social and economic divisions between rural Thais and the Sino-Thai elite in Bankok.

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