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The Thai coup amid broader concerns

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The Thai coup amid broader concerns

Posted 27/05/2014 by Geoff Wade

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


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.