At Large

The King and Us

Thailand is a key U.S. ally -- why is the Obama administration ignoring the bloody civil breakdown in that country?

By 5.28.10

There has been a studious effort by the State and Defense Departments to avoid referencing the bloody civil breakdown in Thailand that has endangered the security of this key ally of American interests in Southeast Asia. As pockets of armed resistance continue to be sought out and mopped up in the rural north, the question exists as to whether the Red Shirt resistance movement that recently brought thousands of violent demonstrators into the streets of central Bangkok will regroup once again to launch another attack on the Thai government.

The Red Shirt movement began among the rural poor -- and urbanized factory workers. There is little doubt that what originally was a small grass root dissidence eventually was given direction by the money and organization of Thaksin Shimawatra, the exiled former prime minister ousted in a 2006 military coup. Originally convicted on corruption charges, the wealth telecom mogul, Thaksin, fled to Dubai. He is now wanted under Thailand's terrorism statutes and will be sought on international warrants.

The bloody demonstrations led by the Thaksin-financed  "United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship" held on to 740 acres of downtown Bangkok for six weeks and sporadically brought violent protests elsewhere in the city for at least a month earlier. Finally wearying of dealing with the defiance of the Thaksin-encouraged activists, the Thai army and special riot police attacked the demonstrators' barricades and cleared the city center. Estimates vary, but 82-85 protestors died in the two months of fighting, fourteen of whom fell at the time of the government assault. The military and police forces announced eleven dead on their side over the sixty-day period. Hundreds were wounded and injured in total on both sides.

To a hardened world this may seem a low number of casualties for such a lengthy confrontation, but this must be viewed in the context of the turmoil and anti-government clashes that have been going on for the last several years. This occasion brought on the torching of the stock exchange, the country's largest shopping mall, and stores and cinemas in Bangkok's main commercial district. Unlike in the past, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82 years old and ill, has not been able to act as Thailand's unifying and peace-preserving figure.

There are two elements that have held together Thailand's form of government that they like to refer to as their unique democracy. The first element is the armed forces in its several forms -- and the second is the king and the institution of the monarchy. For the most part the two have been well linked in the past to preserve the peace and prosperity that has come over the years to this nation. Democracy is seen as following from that linkage.

There has been a political consensus formed around the monarchy and its role as patron protector of Thailand's democratic governance. This conservative anchor was not only important for the nation itself, but it provided a strong pro-western national structure on which the United States and its regional partners could count. From a military standpoint Thailand has acted as a bulwark against communist expansion in general and Chinese growth of power in Southeast Asia in particular.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the king's heir, however, does not have a popular following nor is Thailand an acquiescent society desirous of a monarchy continuing to act as national arbiter and source of crises resolution. The concept of the monarchy may still be enjoyed, but a king backed by his army is not the republican form of government that most observers believe modern Thailand now seeks.

Thailand is now divided socio-economically between the generally well-off royalist class and the large body of farmer/worker political groupings. The latter may respect their old king but no longer have a sense of depending on the throne and its traditional elites to guide them. The old structure is definitely being challenged.

The United States under many administrations has accepted the effective military/monarchy partnership as essential to the maintenance of the Thai form of democracy. Washington may have to accept an altered construct in the future in order to insure Thailand's continued strategic alignment.

This power shift in Thailand is a major factor in Southeast Asian affairs even if the myopic White House is unable or unwilling to recognize this fact. The impression is given that the Administration simply wishes these nettlesome issues, such as those in Thailand, Philippines, and even the ever-belligerent North Korea, would just go away so that Washington's inner circle can concentrate on perpetuating their own self-perceived monarchy.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.