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Thursday, September 22, 2011

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. Ties have been complicated by deep political and economic instability in the wake of a September 2006 coup that displaced Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a popular but divisive figure who remains a flashpoint for many divisions within Thailand. The U.S. has removed the restrictions on aid imposed after the 2006 coup, but questions remain about how relations will fare as Bangkok seeks political stability.

Thailand has long been seen as a stable model of democracy and economic development, but its politics have more recently been dominated by battles between populist forces led by Thaksin (now in exile) and his opponents, a mix of conservative royalists and military figures, and other Bangkok elites. Despite his exile, pro-Thaksin political parties have won both nationwide elections since his ouster, and the current government is led by his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Mass movements both supporting and opposing Thaksin have staged vigorous demonstrations, and one such set of protests spilled over to riots in Bangkok and other cities in May 2010, causing the worst street violence in Thailand in decades.

Many analysts believe that traditional Thai elites—particularly the military’s top brass and many prominent royalist figures—remain deeply opposed to Thaksin and any indication that he might seek to return to a political role in Thailand. But Thaksin (and Yingluck) have considerable support in the country’s poorer regions, stemming from programs Thaksin pursued during his rule from 2001-2006 to provide rural healthcare and other benefits. His ouster has brought out divisions that had been emerging for years between the growing middle-class of Bangkok and the poorer rural population. Risks are heightened by uncertainty about the health of Thailand’s widely revered King Bhumiphol Adulyadej, who is 83.

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 and the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Burma. Although the alliance itself does not appear to be fundamentally shaken by events of the past few years, Thailand’s reliability as a partner, and its ability to be a regional leader, are uncertain. Successive Thai governments have also been unable to stem violence by insurgents in the southern majority- Muslim provinces.

Under the Obama Administration, the United States has prioritized engagement with Southeast Asia. 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 the region and has been an aggressive advocate of increased economic integration. But growing U.S. engagement with Indonesia and Thailand’s domestic problems appear to have dimmed the prominence of the U.S.-Thai relationship in Southeast Asia. Thailand maintains close relations with China and is considered by some to be a key arena of competition between Beijing and Washington for influence.

Date of Report: September 1, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: RL3
Price: $29.95

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