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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thailand: Background and U.S. Relations

Emma Chanlett-Avery
Specialist in Asian Affairs

U.S.-Thailand relations are of interest to Congress because of Thailand's status as a long-time military ally and a significant trade and economic partner. However, ties have been complicated by deep political and economic instability in the wake of the September 2006 coup that displaced Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. After December 2007 parliamentary elections returned many of Thaksin's supporters to power, the U.S. government lifted the restrictions on aid imposed after the coup and worked to restore bilateral ties. Meanwhile, street demonstrations rocked Bangkok and two prime ministers were forced to step down because of court decisions. A new coalition headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva assumed power in December 2008. Bangkok temporarily stabilized, but again erupted into open conflict between the security forces and antigovernment protestors in March 2010. By May, the conflict escalated into the worst violence in Bangkok in decades. With the capital gripped by violence and uncertainty, many questions remain on how U.S. relations will fare as Bangkok seeks some degree of stability. 

Despite differences on Burma policy and human rights issues, shared economic and security interests have long provided the basis for U.S.-Thai cooperation. Thailand contributed troops and support for U.S. military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq and was designated as a major non-NATO ally in December 2003. Thailand's airfields and ports play a particularly important role in U.S. global military strategy, including having served as the primary hub of the relief effort following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. 

Since 2006, Thai politics have been dominated by a fight between populist forces led by Thaksin (now in exile) and his opponents: a mix of conservative royalists and military figures, and other Bangkok elites. Like Thaksin, none of the successive governments has been able to stem the violence of an insurgency in the southern majority-Muslim provinces. A series of attacks by insurgents and counter-attacks by security forces has reportedly claimed around 4,000 lives since January 2004. 

With its favorable geographic location and broad-based economy, Thailand has traditionally been considered among the most likely countries to play a major leadership role in Southeast Asia and has been an aggressive advocate of increased economic integration in the region. A founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Thailand maintains close ties with China and is pursuing FTAs with a number of other countries. Given its ties with the United States, Thailand's stature in the region may affect broader U.S. foreign policy objectives and prospects for further multilateral economic and security cooperation in Southeast Asia.

Date of Report: May 19, 2010
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: RL32593
Price: $29.95

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