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The Thai coup amid broader concerns


The recent assumption of political control in Thailand by the military has induced concerns around the world, for diverse but not always openly-expressed reasons.

Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha took power in Bangkok through a coup d'etat on 22 May and placed the country under martial law, suspending the Constitution and subsequently dissolving the Senate. A number of politicians, activists and academics has been interrogated and some detained. The Thai king has reportedly endorsed the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), through which military control is now exercised.

The Australian Foreign Minister has indicated grave concern, while US Secretary of State John Kerry urged ‘the restoration of civilian government immediately, a return to democracy, and … early elections that reflect the will of the people’. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has cancelled upcoming military exercises with Thailand and various high-level visits.

The expressed concerns lie, however, not solely with the long-term well-being of the people of Thailand, and thus the coup and related issues need to be viewed within a longer and broader frame.  Key among these is that Thailand—a founder member of ASEAN, a pivot in mainland Southeast Asia and a long-term ally of western powers—is essential in the maintenance of Western influence in East Asia. Close US-Thai links extend back to the days of the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts, while Australia has also enjoyed long and generally steadfast relations with the kingdom.

The previous military coup in Thailand, on 19 September 2006, when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed, is also relevant to this story. In response to that coup, the US ambassador in Bangkok, Ralph L. Boyce, proposed a range of sanctions against Thailand as required by US legislation. However, other programs were maintained, including traveller identification systems training, a US military support team training Thai troops for counter-insurgency programs in southern Thailand, and the Global Peace Operations Initiative. The US also allowed Thailand to keep its status as a major non-NATO ally.

It thus appears, from the limited correspondence available, that the US wanted to retain as many links as it could under the existing legislation, and thereby maintain as much influence as possible over the Thai military regime. The reason for this became more obvious through a 5 October 2006 US cable from Bangkok to Washington relaying PRC reaction to the coup.  It noted:

Likely Chinese responses to the coup will include stronger military training programs and public signals of support from Politburo members.  The Thai media has given wide coverage to Wen Jiabao's letter to the MFA which states that the "traditional friendship between China and Thailand dates back to ancient times" and the two people "are like each other's relatives with friendly feelings."  They are contrasting this response to our condemnation of the coup.

Of most concern to the US was increased military links between China and Thailand, given that following the coup PRC Army Attache Senior Colonel Li Mingliang told the US Defence Attache:

his office looks at U.S. military sanctions as an opportunity to expand influence.  Li confidently expressed hope that his approach of telling the Thai that "China is your neighbor, we will be here long-term, we will not interfere in your internal affairs," will give him a leg up on his American counterparts.  

Since that time, PRC-Thailand links—including military relations—have indeed burgeoned. The claims over the last few days in the Chinese press that ‘Thai coup shows weaknesses of Western democracy’, has further fanned concerns that the coup will stoke broader regional contention. This then is one of the key concerns of the Western alliance—and particularly the US military—in dealing with the present coup. This broader concern is also likely what lies behind the softly-softly approach reflected in the Australian Government’s media release on the coup.

An almost-ignored aspect of the Thai coup is the concern which is being felt in Cambodia. The fear of Thai intervention within their country remains a constant within Cambodia, and has long roots. Most recently, the violent contention over the Preah Vihear temple located on their common border was supposedly settled by the International Court of Justice in 2013 when the court assigned ownership to Cambodia. However, this left many in Thailand, and particularly those in the military, feeling aggrieved about the ruling. In addition, there are claims that a Shinawatra Government in exile could possibly be based in Cambodia, which would make that country even more a target of Thai military attention. The Cambodian Government has done its best to quash such rumours and it is unlikely that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen—who has just visited China and signed a military cooperation agreement—would take such a risk. 

Further complicating the continuing intense divisions in Thailand is the poor health of the 86 year-old King Bhumipol, whose demise will create new uncertainties and social fractures within the kingdom. Contention and concern over the monarchical succession will only add to the uncertainty of events.

It is these various factors, which presage possibly greater disruption both within Thailand and regionally, that need to be factored into analysis and planning on all sides, and particularly into Australia’s plans to relocate asylum-seekers to Cambodia.