Friday, 23 May 2014

The 2014 Coup in Thailand and the New Great Game in South East Asia.

The Thai military takeover was clearly a coup. Yet Western observers and diplomats are blundering by declaring too openly as did John Kerry in stating “there is no justification for this military coup” . he hinted there would be "negative implications for the U.S.-Thai relationship" and "especially the Thai military.”

The 2006 coup in Thailand was seen as beneficial in some quarters in Washington as during the Cold War the monarchy-military nexus had tended to back the US in South East Asia. However, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and the USA's relative decline it has become more complicated.

What exactly the coup will mean domestically for Thailand is uncertain but there is an interesting geopolitical context to the unrest. In the post Cold War period, Thailand remained a close ally of the US and was a partner in George Bush's 'Global War on Terror', and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, with the phenomenal growth of China as Asia's or indeed the globe's economic superpower, the US-Thai alliance can no longer be taken for granted. After the coup of 2006, the US put certain sanctions on Thailand and yet it has had no effect on preventing the army interfering in politics.

China would have no qualms in dealing with an authoritarian regime in Bangkok and has attempted to cultivate greater cultural ties especially with the privileged Sino-Thai elite in and around Bangkok who dislike democracy and the threat to their privileges posed by the pro-Thaksin Redshirts.

The coup cannot be officially called a coup in Washington yet because it is not entirely clear if the generals in Bangkok are going to explicitly decide in favour of a government that rejects the democratic mandate given to PM Yingluck Shinawatra or allow fresh elections.

Washington has been divided over whether to back the traditional monarchy-military nexus', supported by the Yellow Shirts, or the pro-Thaksim Redshirts because by backing one or the other too decisively, they could stand to lose political influence to China in the ruling circles of Bangkok .

In practice, under President Obama, Washington has tended to look favourably on Thaksim's side since the Pivot To Asia strategy became the USA's paramount concern in global power politics. One reason is that the government that overthrew Thaksim in the 2006 coup was unpopular and not so pro-US as hoped.

By contrast, Thaksin is seen to represents the the majority of the rural masses and the less privileged in Thailand and is regarded as being an ally of other leaders in neighbouring states such as Hun Sen in Cambodia who had Thaksin as an economic adviser and offered sanctuary to him after the 2006 coup.

As Washington has moved closer to the government of Thaksin's sister ,Yingluck Shinawatra, so as to avert the prospect of Bangkok moving closer to Beijing on issues such as the dispute over the oil and gas in the maritime waters claimed by China, the monarchy-military nexus has been sidelined.

Hence the coup of 2014 could see a reversal of the monarchy-military nexus's previous tendency to lean towards Washington should the US impose sanctions or threaten to suspend military cooperation because China would only be ready to step in to increase joint military exercises and naval patrols with Thailand.

A Congressional Research Service report in 2009 stated "Following the 2006 coup, many US government officials cited fears that China would take advantage of any withdrawal of US military assistance to establish stronger defence relations between Bangkok and Beijing".

The problem for the US is that is denouncing the coup too openly and threatening Thailand with sanctions ( while not calling it a coup ), Washington is going to play into the hands of Beijing which has consistently and increasingly tried to court former allies and opponents of Thaksin's party to gain influence.

Even more ominously, China has attempted 'race-based diplomacy', promoting ties with Thailand's Sino-Thai elites, a number of whom tend to support the monarchy-military nexus and back the Yellow Shirts against the growing strength of the poor, thus adding a potential ethnic dimension to the turmoil.

The absurdly named Thai Democrats led by Abhisit Vejjajiva which represents these elite interests has no interest in parliamentary democracy since it has been unable to win an election since 2001. It's main middle class backers in Bangkok refer to the red shirts as "buffalos", "low class and vile" or else just "trash".

If Thailand remains under military rule, the chances of chronic civil war are likely to be heightened by the competitive New Great Game for influence and regional alliances in South East Asia between China and the US, in which Thailand would be an important linchpin, if order breaks down and widespread conflict ensues.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.