Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
This short essay analyses the position of the United States vis-à-vis political developments in Thailand, its long established relations with traditional Thai elites, and Washington's views on the May crisis of 2010. It argues that the American perception of the current power struggle in Thailand is strictly constrained by an old, obsolete structure in which the Thai-U.S. relations have been shaped and dominated by the effective military-monarchy partnership in Thailand and the various American interests in the maintenance of such a partnership. As J. L. S. Girling once said, “The Thai-US relationship has remained an outgrowth of Thailand's patronage political system.” As a result, the United States has appeared to adopt a stance of support for establishment forces at the expense of serious advocacy of the pro-democracy agenda of the Red Shirt movement, known principally as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship or UDD.
Self-interest alone does not sufficiently explain unfailing American support for Thailand's traditional elites and its seeming disapproval of the Red Shirts’ political activities. Based on extensive interviews with a number of Thai and American diplomats, this essay concludes that the obstinate attitude of the United States derives fundamentally from a lack of understanding of and genuine interest in Thai political development on the part of the Department of State and the American Embassy in Bangkok. The end of the Cold War and the gradual American disengagement with Southeast Asia, including Thailand, during the 1990s and into the period of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's administration (2001–06) created a huge “vacuum of information” on political evolution in the country. This vacuum has conveniently prevented the United States from modifying its policy towards Thailand even when the Thai domestic and international environments have significantly changed. Washington continues to operate in its relationship with Bangkok on the basis of its conventional perception of Thailand, even as it endlessly pays lip service to the promotion of Thai democracy. The American policy of safeguarding the Thai political status quo, which has benefited the rich and powerful elites in the kingdom, has severely narrowed the perspective of the United States, and indeed its policy options, as it tries to keep up with Thailand's unfolding political situation.