Fact Check: Updating Cold War Myths About Thailand
Many honest, busy analysts outside established media circles in the United States and Europe are plagued by mythologies stemming from once pseudo-truths they simply lack the time or energy to dig into and finally correct.
US-Thai Relations During the Vietnam War
During the Vietnam War, Thailand hosted US forces on its territory. It contributed a number of its own troops in supporting roles throughout Southeast Asia and conducted its own military campaign domestically against heavily armed Communist militants. It is easy to conclude that Thailand was an eager ally then, and easy to see why many analysts assume this is still the case today.
However, in reality, the history of Thailand is of the only nation in Southeast Asia to avoid Western colonisation. It is also the story of a nation that survived the World Wars by expertly aligning itself amid greater powers, neither significantly contributing to nor suffering from contests of powers between more powerful nations.
During the Second World War, Thailand tenuously aligned with the Japanese. It played no significant role in a war the Japanese ultimately lost. Upon Japan’s defeat, Thailand would once again balance its relationships evenly among its Asian neighbours and the Western victors of the war.
The Vietnam War was likewise a regional war started by foreign powers. It devastated not only Vietnam itself, but neighbouring Laos and Cambodia as well. Despite escaping the worst of the fighting, Thailand lost over a thousand soldiers and police amid security operations within its own borders. It fought allegedly Communist fighters, based primarily in Udon Thani, coincidentally where the US maintained its intelligence apparatus.
In hindsight of the current so-called “War on Terror,” where the US uses terrorism both as a proxy force against its enemies and as a pretext and pressure point for manoeuvring against its supposed allies, it appears a similar arrangement unfolded in Southeast Asia. Readers should keep in mind that this includes the supposedly leftist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia backed by the United States being ultimately overthrown by Communist Vietnam forces. Geopolitically, it appears the US supports allies and agents of convenience rather than those who share their supposed ideologies.
Despite supplying Thailand with a large amount of US weapons, conducting annual military exercises with the Royal Thai Armed Forces and claiming Thailand as one of America’s oldest and closest allies in Southeast Asia, upon America’s withdrawal in Vietnam, America’s influence and ties with Bangkok incrementally diminished over time.
Thailand Today is not the Vietnam-Era US Ally of Yesterday
Claims that Thailand ever was a “close ally” of America are tenuous at best. Regardless of how one splits hairs regarding Bangkok and Washington’s past, Thailand today is undoubtedly in the process of yet another historical realignment, reflecting the geopolitical shifts taking place worldwide as America’s global influence declines.In 2000, billionaire and politician Thaksin Shinawatra assumed power. He had previously been an adviser to the US equity firm, the Carlyle Group, and upon taking office, boasted that he would continue his role in pairing US business interests with Thailand’s resources. He would also privatise Thailand’s large oil conglomerate, inviting foreign corporations to buy shares. He would also unilaterally pursue a US-Thai free trade agreement that was ultimately obstructed by Thailand’s sovereign institutions.
In addition to the overt pro-American stance Shinawatra took, he also was more insidiously attempting to undermine and overthrow Thailand’s sovereign institutions, a move that would have left the nation vulnerable to foreign predation. Shinawatra would eventually be ousted from power in a 2006 coup. From 2006 onward, Shinawatra would be the recipient of extensive lobbying services from some of the largest lobbying firms in Washington including those with direct ties to the Carlyle Group’s membership. These included Baker Botts of US President George Bush-era James Baker fame.Thailand has suffered from political instability ever since, as Shinawatra and his foreign-backed political party struggle to retake power. This included the most recent conflict centred around Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra who briefly served as prime minister from 2011-2014 before also being ousted in a coup.
It is a process of destabilisation openly facilitated by US and European-funded fronts posing as nongovernmental organisations. The role of America’s National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and private foundations like Open Society in support of Shinawatra’s bid to return to power under the guise of “democracy” have been extensively documented for years.
Yet despite the truth of this now decade-plus political crisis being extensively documented, the myth of Thailand remaining a close US ally persists even as the US openly attempts to subvert Thailand and its sovereign institutions, particularly its military and its constitutional monarchy.
Thailand’s Growing Ties With China
Beyond anecdotal evidence provided by Westerners confined to a handful of tourist traps in Bangkok, Thailand is a nation in transition. While tourism provides a significant amount of income for Thailand, it possesses a primarily manufacturing and agriculture-based economy. Despite this, tourism provides insight into shifting global trends and for Thailand there has been a clear shift from receiving Americans, Western Europeans and Japanese to now receiving mostly Chinese, ASEAN and Russian tourists.
In 2016, approximately 8.7 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, followed by 3.5 million Malaysians and 1 million Russians. Tourists from the United States fell under 1 million.
This represents a socioeconomic shift globally, and it is a shift that Thailand is adjusting to not only in terms of tourism, but economically, diplomatically and militarily as well.
China and the United States represent Thailand’s two largest trading partners with trade almost equal between the two world powers. However, in the near future, trade will likely shift distinctively in China’s favour. While the US continues to provide a hungry import market for Thai manufacturing and agriculture, it has little to offer Thailand in return. Conversely, China offers infrastructure, technology and military hardware. It also has the advantage of proximity.
In addition to joint infrastructure projects between Thailand and China, including a high-speed railway aimed at linking Thailand to southern China, Thailand has begun diversifying heavy industry acquisitions with purchases from China. This includes Chinese rolling stock for Thailand’s mass transportation systems.Thailand is also diversifying its military arsenal, at one time dominated by US weaponry. Today, Thailand has acquired main battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers from China. It is also in the process of acquiring Chinese submarines. In addition to continued annual joint Thai-US military exercises, Thailand has begun conducting its first joint-exercises with China in recent years beginning in 2015.
It is clear that a geopolitical shift is taking place and that Thailand is shifting with these changes. The myth of Thailand being a stalwart US proxy does not even pass historical scrutiny, let alone stand up to current events.
The US is falling behind in all matters economically to China, who is not only a significant trading partner with Thailand, but also plans on playing a role in developing modern infrastructure in both Thailand and among Thailand’s ASEAN neighbours.
Attempts to portray the current Thai government as beholden to Washington and support of Thai opposition to the Thai military and constitutional monarchy only serve Washington’s interests in destabilising all three and placing their proxies led by Thaksin Shinawatra back into power.
Analysts who choose to cover Thailand and its role in geopolitics must take the time and effort to unravel these self-defeating and persistent myths about Thailand’s role in history and particularly its complicated relationship with Washington, predicated more on self-preservation than on willing or beneficial abetting. They must also unravel persistent myths about Thailand’s economic and military relations today, myths easily dispelled by even the most cursory research into easily obtainable statistics.
Why is the Passing of Thailand’s King a Big Deal?
|Image: Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej.|
October 16, 2016 (Tony Cartalucci – NEO) –The passing of Thailand’s head of state, the 88 year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, marks a historically significant event in Thailand’s history. For most Thais, they have known only one king their entire life – King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The significance of Thailand’s monarchy to Thai peopleis difficult for Westerners to understand. Unlike Western monarchies who rule from above, Thailand’s monarchy has historically ruled through service to the people. It is in recognition of this service that drives hundreds of thousands of Thais into the streets of Bangkok to participate in the beginning of funeral rites this week.
The depth and scope of this service includes not only the political boundaries and stability the monarchy provided when politicians and political parties clashed within the nation, but also service in driving long-term infrastructure projects regarding irrigation, energy, and agriculture shortsighted politicians refused to pursue.
Many aspects of Thai agriculture, from the introduction of new crops to the concept of cooperatives and localizing rice mills, were introduced through initiatives promoted and funded by the Royal Family itself. King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s royal palace in Bangkok was many years ago converted into a demonstration and training center where today, foreigners and Thais alike can augment their skills and diversify their economic activity.
Politically, the monarchy’s ability to reside above contests of political power and the deep respect Thais hold for the institution, creates a set of boundaries that have prevented dangerous – even violent political struggles – from expanding into the sort of destructive conflicts seen previously in neighboring Cambodia or currently expanding across the Middle East.
For Thailand’s enemies who seek to undermine political stability or overthrow Thailand’s political order, their primary obstacle and thus target has always been the nation’s revered, powerful monarchy. The passing of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej presents a perceived vulnerability Thailand’s enemies will undoubtedly seek to exploit to weaken Thailand and thus by doing so, disrupt regional stability.
Thailand’s Importance to Southeast Asia
Thailand is a prominent Southeast Asian nation, home to 70 million people, a dynamic and diverse economy ranging from agriculture to manufacturing, and remains the only nation in the region to have eluded Western colonization.
It has played a pivotal role throughout history, leveraging colonial powers against one another before the World Wars, a battlefield during World War 2, a contributing factor to France’s loss of Indochina and host to US military forces during the Vietnam War.
Since the conflict in Vietnam, Thailand has slowly and incrementally pivoted away from its role in US regional hegemony toward a more balanced place in the region.
Today, as the US performs its own “pivot toward Asia,” Thailand’s geopolitical shift has become even more pronounced as it seeks to evade US pressure, influence, and domination.
Thailand’s arsenal – once dominated by aging American hardware – now hosts Chinese, Russian, European, and even Middle Eastern defense systems. The nation strives to cultivate multiple relationships so as to not be dominated or overly dependent on any single one of them – which has been the key to Thailand’s longstanding sovereignty throughout history.
Currently, Thailand along with the rest of Southeast Asia, serves as a source of trade and cooperation with Beijing. Contrary to popular belief, both China and Southeast Asia conduct the majority of their trade within Asia itself. The stability of the region is therefore essential to each and every nation within the region.
For the US who seeks to encircle and contain China, the destabilization of the region is key to hindering China’s rise and preventing the all but inevitable waning of US “primacy” in Asia Pacific.
Attacking along China’s peripheries, either by coercing, destabilizing, or overthrowing and replacing the governments of China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia is essential to eventually coercing, destabilizing, or overthrowing and replacing the government of China itself.
Thailand is just one of several nations currently being destabilized by the US. For each nation in the region, the US pursues similar strategies with only minor differences depending on socioeconomic and culturally factors. The presence of US-funded opposition groups and a virtual army of faux-non governmental organizations (NGOs) exist in each and every nation in Southeast Asia.
In Thailand in particular, the primary target is Thailand’s monarchy and its military – two institutions the US sees as obstacles to ever placing an obedient client regime into power. The US believes this precisely because over the past 15 years, through their proxy Thaksin Shinawatra, they have tried and failed to seize power by proxy because of two military coups and massive street protests organized by Thais rallying around their historical institutions.
|Image: In 2013-2014, protesters rallied against US-backed proxy Thaksin Shinawatra and his political party. The protests ended in a military coup that ousted Shinawatra’s sister from office. Since Shinawatra’s removal from power, the US has stepped up efforts to undermine and destabilize Thailand politically.|
The average Thai is acutely aware of – if not the current geopolitical and domestic political dynamics of Thailand’s present – the fact that the military and monarchy now and throughout Thailand’s ancient history have been the primary reason the nation remains unconquered.
Attacks, or perceived attacks on either of Thailand’s revered and respected institutions is perceived by the vast majority of Thais as an attack on Thailand itself.
Thus, throughout the media, those networks including CNN and the BBC who regularly and intentionally target the military and monarchy are reviled by Thais. In 2010, when CNN corespondent Dan Rivers mischaracterized street violence carried out by Thaksin Shinawatra’s political party, Thais campaigned against CNN until Rivers was eventually sent home.
Today, the Western media seeks to exploit the sensitive transition period as Thais mourn the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej – and have already launched a campaign to undermine the heir, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Making or Breaking Relations with Thailand
Those networks perceived as exploiting or disrupting Thailand’s sensitive transition will immediately be identified by Thais as “enemies” of not only the monarchy, but the nation it has historically served.
For Westerners who live in nations where institutions from as large as government to as small as family are mired in dysfunction, the concept of an entire nation existing as a large “extended family” is alien to them. However alien such a concept may be, the consequences of misunderstanding this concept can cost some nations their influence and standing, not only in Thailand but in Southeast Asia in which Thailand resides a central and influential nation.
|Image: The West’s inability or unwillingness to support Thailand during this sensitive time is their loss, and China’s gain.|
A recent article published by Russia’s RT, for example, will undoubtedly be perceived by Thais as a collective attack on them. While the article was likely written, edited, and published by a handful of unprofessional journalists – citing the US State Department and paid lobbyists – it will inadvertently reflect poorly on Russia collectively. Just like CNN and the BBC are reviled and the national influence of the US and UK negatively affected by their actions in Thailand and Asia, careless networks in Russia like RT will become a vector of similar backlash directed at Russia itself if such unprofessionalism is not rectified.
Tony Cartalucci is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer.
As Thai-Chinese Relations Grow, So do US Threats
These ties include military purchases to replace Thailand’s aging US hardware with newer and more capable Chinese main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles and even submarines either already in use or on their way.
Thai-Chinese relations also centre around Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Thailand’s role as a major partner through which high-speed rail will connect China itself with Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and by extension, Singapore granting passengers and freight travelling from China a shortcut to the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean beyond.
The obvious, negative implications this will have on Washington’s self-proclaimed notion of Asian primacy has led to gathering political storm clouds. The US is leading a noticeable uptick in propaganda aimed at not only undermining China’s BRI, but also attacking China’s partners, including Thailand.
The US and its partners are also increasing their political interference in Thailand, attempting during recent elections to install political forces into power that will reverse Thai-Chinese relations. The failure of these forces to decisively win elections even with US aid, leaves the looming prospect of the US resorting to backing protests and even terrorism to spoil Thai-Chinese gains.
Bangkok-Beijing Cementing Ties
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha attended Beijing’s recent 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
Pro-Western English newspaper, the Bangkok Post, in an article titled, “Regime talks up China ties on visit to Beijing for ‘Belt and Road’ forum,” would note:
“Both sides were satisfied with the fact that over the past five years, Thailand and China have had their closest relations ever,” deputy government spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak, told the media in the press wrap-up about the meetings between Thai and Chinese leaders.
“Gen Prayut gave an assurance that Thailand will take care of Chinese investors and tourists,” said Lt Gen Werachon.
Both nations pledged to help drive up the value of trade between them to US$140 billion by 2021, double the current $73.6 billion.
To put Thai-Chinese trade in perspective, China is already Thailand’s number one trade partner, with over 15% of all Thai exports going to China, with the US in second at 11.5%. Over 20% of Thai imports come from China versus only about 5.7% from the US.
China also accounts for the vast majority of all tourists visiting Thailand, beating out the combined number of tourists travelling from all Western nations combined.
Thai-Chinese trade and tourism is only set to grow. Along with expanding military ties and obvious shared-interests in regional security and stability, Cold War notions of Thailand being a US proxy should be finally and definitively laid to rest.
Still, Thailand has historically attempted to maintain a careful balance between great world powers. It seeks to build ties with the West and nations like Russia as well as with its own ASEAN neighbours specifically to ensure a healthy balance in political and economic relations.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in an interview with Time would explain regarding Thailand’s relationship with China and the US that:
The friendship between Thailand and China has been over thousands of years, and with USA for around 200 years, and we remain these ties between our fellow countries until now. China is the number one partner of Thailand, along with other countries in the second and third place like the U.S. and others. They are all good friends to Thailand. Thailand is a small country, so we need to properly balance politics and foreign affairs with all fellow countries.
The US, not Thailand, has complicated this balancing act by categorically failing to offer potential partners like Thailand any sort of viable alternative to Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, manufacturing capacity and trade. Thailand has inked deals with Japan to build other rail projects in the Kingdom and has made arms purchases from Europe and Russia to avoid overly depending on China.
Instead of the US providing its own viable alternatives for Thailand to choose from, it has relied increasingly on various methods of coercion and interference, leaving nations like Thailand with little choice but to move on without Washington and its increasingly toxic brand of foreign policy.
Washington’s Proxies Take Aim at Thai-Chinese Relations
While Thailand’s leading business, military and political circles have decisively pivoted away from Washington and toward Beijing, there exists an extensive network of media, academics, activists, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and political parties that receive support from Washington and in turn serve US interests, determined to reverse this.
The current Thai government, headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha was a result of the former ousting the latter from power in 2014. In more recent elections, US-backed interests have attempted again to return themselves to power.
Among this pro-Western political circle is Thanathorn Jungrungreangkit, co-heir of his parents’ fortune and long-time supporter of ousted US proxy, ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
In the lead up to the 2019 elections, Thanathorn pledged to roll back Thai-Chinese relations including scrapping the centrepiece of China’s BRI project in Thailand, the high-speed rail network. Thanathorn instead insisted that Thailand should invest in the still untested (and so far nonexistent) US hyperloop project, Bloomberg would report.
For this, Thanathorn and his party have received a disproportionate amount of positive coverage from the Western media and support from not only the US and European embassies, but also from US-EU funded government and corporate foundations along with a small army of nongovernmental organisations they have created inside Thailand’s political and public spheres.
However, US-backed political forces like Future Forward came in behind the Thai military-linked Palang Pracharath Party during recent elections. They also face myriad legal challenges and are unlikely to assume political power. Because of this, the US and its partners are turning up the pressure on Thailand both in the media and through attempts to foment unrest in Thailand’s streets.
This is all being done with mention of Thai-Chinese relations in the forefront.
More Drastic Measures
Another article appearing in the Bangkok Post, written by AFP and titled, “Xinjiang crackdown at the heart of China’s Belt and Road,” attempts to shame nations (like Thailand) from doing business with China because of Beijing’s supposed human rights violations. But as has been documented elsewhere, Beijing truly faces a legitimate extremist threat in Xinjiang, one deliberately tailored by Washington to disrupt yet another key BRI segment.
Washington’s two-pronged approach in Xinjiang, where it is promoting extremism and defending extremists under the guise of human rights, is a cautionary tale of what awaits Thailand as US attempts to install a client government in Bangkok fail and more aggressive measures are adopted.
The recent blasts that singled out religious and economic targets in Sri Lanka appear to be further examples of this strategy. With even US ambassadors assigning blame to the Islamic State (IS) and with all indicators pointing to US and Saudi Arabian state sponsorship behind IS’ initial rise, it is difficult to ignore the obvious implications.
Sri Lanka being another important BRI partner, passed a certain point of no return after which Western abuse in the media and political interference were no longer effective in coercing change in Colombo’s geopolitical trajectory. It is difficult to see how large-scale terrorist attacks will convince Colombo to reverse ties with Beijing, but it is easy to see how such attacks may seek to spoil ties Washington can no longer realistically reverse.
Nations like Thailand must prepare thoroughly for continued media abuse, political interference and eventually terrorism aimed at it by Washington and its partners. The US has invested nearly a century in pursuit of global hegemony and in particular, primacy over Asia. That primacy is slipping through its fingers.
If the US was willing to lay waste to nations across the Middle East through sanctions, war and terrorism in an attempt to reassert itself and its interests there, how far will Washington go to preserve its primacy over Asia? Was Sri Lanka a preview? Will the US stop at intrusive and disruptive political interference in Thailand’s internal affairs? Or will it take matters further?
Thailand’s defence must be built on being prepared for the worst rather than assuming the US will stop short of more extreme measures. By Thailand being fully prepared, circles in Washington proposing extreme measures with little chance of success may lose out to more sensible interests and policies, leading to repaired, more constructive ties between Thailand and the US in the future.
1. POMP & CIRCUMSTANCE Thailand’s monarchy seems resilient and probably popular. What do you think of these images?
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