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Thailand: Looming political crisis

Written by: (Contributed) on 29 June 2024


(Above: The Royal Thai Army suppreesed 2010 "Red Shirt" rallies.  Photo: Flickr Commons)

A brief political assessment about Thailand in the Australian business press has revealed widespread concern about a likely resurgence of opposition forces in one of the most important US-led centres for regional defence and security and trade. Thailand, historically, was and remains a major diplomatic player in South-east Asian affairs, including the ASEAN trade bloc. Any return to previous widespread opposition to the traditional centres of Thai power are likely to cause serious issues for the US and their allies across the wider region.

In mid-June, limited media coverage about Thailand carried an unambiguous warning that 'in reality, the South-east Asian constitutional monarchy is on the brink of another round of convulsive protests by young Thais who have had enough of the cheating and distorting of an ageing establishment that refuses to acknowledge its time may be coming to an end'. (1)

Thailand has maintained a shaky democratic facade for decades under the nominal control of a monarchy although it has also experienced thirteen military coups in the past ninety years.

Previous widespread opposition to the monarchy and political establishment took the form of supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra who wore red-shirts and demonstrated in their millions against perceived corruption and political chicanery. The supporters of the status quo wore yellow-shirts to identify their allegiance to the monarchy. There were violent clashes.

While the political divisions between the red and yellow shirts have officially been regarded as a problem of yesteryear, bitter divisions still exist beneath the surface of Thai political culture. Following the coup of 19 September 2006, which deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, he fled into exile, his political party was outlawed and he was banned from political activity in the country. Remnants of his supporters, nevertheless, re-grouped and continued to operate behind numerous front organisations.

Returning to Thailand on 22 August last year, Thaksin Shinawatra was able to prove he still retained huge popularity with ordinary Thai people. (2) He is now set on a collision course with the Monarchy and political establishment after being 'formally indicted for defaming the Monarchy while the failure of the current Prime Minister and main opposition hang in the balance'. (3)

While the legal status of Thailand's political opposition forces remains under legal consideration following months of court hearings, fears have been raised that a further round of banning opposition 'will not only mark the end of the country's shaky democracy, but trigger more political uncertainty'. (4) The centres of traditional Thai class and state power now appear increasingly vulnerable, being out-manoeuvred by opposition forces.

It has already raised serious concerns for Washington and the Pentagon's Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) whereby Japan has been elevated to the US-led diplomatic position of a global alliance, while other countries including Thailand, are linked as lower-level partners for 'US interests'. (5) Political upheaval in Thailand is, therefore, likely to have far-reaching implications for the IPS; effective intelligence-gathering rests upon political stability.

The US intelligence services regarded Thailand as an asset during the previous Cold War, and there is every reason to believe it continues to be so during the present Cold War; its close proximity with Cambodia and their close diplomatic relations with China is considered by the US as problematic. (6) Thailand also has a large Russian diaspora, most of whom settled in the country after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The political crisis in Thailand has also come at an unfortunate time for the US and their allies; moves by the US to attract support for their trade war with China have been seen to not be particularly well supported. In fact, while the US seeks to 'isolate Beijing on the global stage', numerous allies have been noticeably reluctant to follow suit. (7)

Meanwhile, China's foreign trade has increasingly focussed upon South-east Asia and elsewhere in the emerging economies, as exports to the US have dropped. (8)

Thailand, historically, has been a major player in traditional US-led hegemonic positions in South-east Asia. A founder member of the ASEAN trade bloc during the previous Cold War,
Thailand hosted one of the largest US diplomatic missions of anywhere in the world in Bangkok. As with other countries in the near region, however, its rapid economic expansion followed the emergence of China as a major diplomatic player. China's GDP, likewise, rose from $397 billion in 1990, to an estimated near $15 trillion by 2020. (9)

During the 2007 to 2014 period, for example, ASEAN nearly doubled its GDP ratings, as a result of closer links with China. (10)

Thailand, however, has entered into a period of economic uncertainty and decline in recent years; in 1960 it had a GDP rate of a little over five per cent, falling to slightly above two per cent during the early 2020's. (11) While its high-spot was the late 1980s, when Thai growth rates rose to over thirteen per cent, massive fluctuations followed together with a general decline to only 1.9 per cent last year, possibly rising to an optimistic projection of 2.2/3.2 for this year. (12) The optimism may sour with a political crisis.

Thailand, nevertheless, has remained a central player inside ASEAN, which collectively has continued to regard little benefit from siding totally with either the US or China. They gain benefits from both, using skilful diplomacy.

The Thai big bourgeoise has also positioned itself to make a killing from neighbouring Burma/Myanmar’s bloody suppression of anti-regime and ethnic liberation struggles. Thai banks have become the main supplier of cross-border financial services for Myanmar’s military government, enabling its purchases of arms and equipment despite sanctions against the regime. (13)

ASEAN, in which Thailand has a major influence also presents the US with a major problem: its status has grown to be a central player in regional diplomacy. Studies have noted the 'ASEAN and Chinese economies are becoming inseparably inter-twined'. (14) And, while ASEAN is navigating an increasingly challenging regional environment … China's surging influence raises concerns, as do US responses, which increase strategic tension and gives short shrift to economics and regional prosperity'. (15)

The extremely limited nature of coverage in pro-US media outlets would tend to indicate the sensitive nature of recent developments in Thailand! More, nevertheless, may follow in due course if the political tensions beneath the surface rise to the fore.

1.     Thailand bonfire waiting for match, Australian, 13 June 2024.
2.     See: Thaksin Shinawatra, BBC News, 22 August 2023.
3.     Political crisis grips Thailand, BBC News, 19 June 2024.
4.     Australian, op.cit., 13 June 2024.
5.     See: The reasons behind Washington's push for GSOMIA., Hankyoreh, 12 November 2019.
6.     See: From the Shadows – The ultimate insider's story, Robert M. Gates, (New York, 1996), page 312.
7.     US seeks EU's support in trade war, Australian, 22 May 2024; and, Europe takes new strategy to China Shock 2.0, Australian, 25 June 2024.
8.     China's export machine moves on, Australian, 14 June 2024.
9.     AUKUS a strong hand in a region under threat, Australian, 26 June 2024.
10.   What is ASEAN? The World Economic Forum, 9 May 2017.
11.   GDP Growth (annual percentage) Thailand, World Bank Group.
12.   Ibid., and, Executive Summary, Perspectives, Global Inflation Cools, Deloitte.
13.  Thai banks are the top suppliers of financial services to Myanmar’s military, UN expert says, Washington Times, 26 June 2024
14.   Towards an equal partnership, East Asia Forum, Volume 15, Number 3, September 2023, pp. 3.5.
15.   Japan as a diplomatic asset to ASEAN, East Asia Forum, Volume 15, Number 3, September 2023, pp. 6-8.




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