Friday, February 9, 2007

US-Thai Relations: While Thaksin Hires Powerful US Lobbyists, Official Washington Stays Loyal to Its Generals in BKK


Thaksin's loss, US's gain

By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Thailand's unfolding political drama pitting exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra against the military-run Council for National Security (CNS) that ousted him has cast the United States in an awkward but familiar position, where realpolitik imperatives now, as historically, have trumped Washington's stated public position of non-support to governments that seize power through anti-democratic means.

Washington was legally bound to suspend about US$14 million in military-to-military aid earmarked for Thailand. The US State Department on cue publicly admonished the CNS for seizing power through undemocratic means and urged a quick return to democracy, which the junta has promised for this year.

That's still the State Department's public line, but President George W Bush and senior US envoys in Bangkok have signaled clearly to the junta that Washington has scant intention of downgrading bilateral relations because of the coup.

In many ways, Thailand's coup has served US regional interests well. Thailand is historically Washington's most trusted strategic ally in Southeast Asia, and US officials are leveraging their senior military contacts now in government in a bid to counterbalance China's expanding regional influence. While the US maintained strong ties with Thaksin's authoritarian administration, particularly through cooperation on counter-terrorism issues, there were concurrent concerns in Washington that the ethnically Chinese Thaksin [1] was gradually moving Thailand closer to Beijing at the United States' strategic expense.

Those concerns would help to explain why Bush received coolly last April Thaksin's pleading personal letter, where the then-embattled premier claimed "anti-democratic" forces were attempting to knock him from power through "extra-constitutional" means. Of course those anti-democratic forces - the royalist military officials who spearheaded the coup - were and remain some of the United States' best in-country contacts. And since Thaksin's ouster, to the deposed premier's apparent chagrin, the US has kept close working tabs with the junta and its interim civilian administration.

This is a very interesting article. I think Washington is hedging its bets, which is a good thing, because that means after six years of foreign policy disasters it is starting to grow up.

Official Washington's warm embrace of a military junta in Thailand was unusual, especially after the six years of "spreading democracy" neo-con rhetoric coming from the Bush administration. Considering how often Thakin bragged about his friendship with Texas soul mate George W. Bush, one would have thought that the White House would have come out more strongly against the coup instead of giving it a slap on the wrist.

As the article states, however, US-Thai military relations go back far and they are deep at the higher levels (Prem, Surayud, Prasong), which shouldn't be surprising since the US underwrote a huge part of the Thai military budget during most of the Cold War. Further, in the last few months, three former presidents have come to Thailand, with George Bush 41 making a warm courtesy call to King Bumibol. None of those presidents came out and condemned the coup. In fact, except for some diplomatic words about returning quickly to a democratic regime, they pretended as if it never happened.

On the other hand, Thaksin has recruited three extremely capable Republican/White House linked PR/lobbying firms, which have spared no effort to get Thaksin's message out in the international media. If Official Washington is pro-junta, why wouldn't the White House or US military tell the three lobbying firms to back off or at least not take Thaksin's calls.

So what the hell is going on?

I'm guessing that the White House is hedging its bets and playing both sides, which tells me that US intelligence inside Thailand is weak. In other words, they have no clue who will end up on top when King Bumibol dies. And when he does die, they have no clue which way Thailand will go. Will Thailand be liberated finally or will it turn inwards and close itself off while the political realignments work themselves out? I think in the beginning that Washington was supportive of the junta because it provided some short-term stability. But the generals have bungled, a lot, and that may have shaken confidence for them in Washington.

And to complicate things even more, ever since the junta's puppet government took office it has instituted various anti-liberal economic policies. This appears to the outside world as a move towards insulation and a right-wing aristocratic/military control of Thailand's means of production. In contrast, the capitalist Chinese/TRT faction had moved away during the last two years of Thaksin's tenure from nationalist Thaksinomics to a more open neo-liberal economic approach to managing Thailand's economy. It went so far as to start negotiating major trade agreements with major economic powers, opening up mega-projects to international bidding, as well as selling off major Thai assets like the Shin Group.

Also, what is interesting is that the real hostility towards Thaksin didn't really begin until he moved away from national socialist policies that protected certain economic groups in Thailand towards neo-liberal ones which started opening the economy up to more outsiders.

Why weren't people hitting the streets when Thaksin was murdering thousands of people during the drug war and a host of other things that were damaging to Thai people's lives and liberties?

Indeed, the real Thaksin hate parade didn't really reach full steam until the Temasek deal.

Plus, I can't prove this, but I have a suspicion that there is more to the Temasek deal than meets the eye.

When Thaksin first got these concessions from the state, who signed off on them? Traditionally, going back hundreds of years under the tax farming system, any Chinese capitalist who wanted to develop an industry had to get permission or concession from the state. To do this, the Chinese capitalist would have to pay up front for his concession, then pay a yearly fee to the state, both unofficially and officially.

So when Thaksin got his concessions for mobile phones and his satellite business, which were more or less state monopolies, he had to pay a concession fee(tea money) and continue to pay off whoever gave him the concessions indefinitely.

And just to be clear, I am talking about his unofficial fees. Thaksin still had to pay the official fees as well, even though he reduced Shin Groups official concession fees after he became prime minister.

Anyway, so once Thaksin sold off Shin Group to Temasek, I assume the payment of unofficial concession fees stopped, and those who got screwed out of those payments are somehow related to the military officers who started the coup.

Just look at how the generals are now trying to extort billions from Singapore over ITV.

Thaksin, of course, was attacked from many quarters whose economic and political interests were hurt by him, but the Temasek deal was the thing that pushed it all over the edge.

Now, while Thaksin is enjoying the fruits of his ill-gotten gains, the generals have their knives out for the meat of the Shin Group, and seem to be plotting to get it back for pennies on the dollar.

Many of these official and unofficial shenanigans lately concerning screwing foreigners in the economy, especially the junta's revenge against Singapore and its Temasek/Shin holdings, is worrying to Washington, Tokyo and others in the West.

In other words, they don't want to let the generals get rich on their dimes, as in the past, and they don't want to let the Thai powers at be screw them with petty little right-wing nationalist games.

So by keeping Thaksin politically alive, Washington keeps the generals in check from getting too greedy and the juntacrats in check with their asinine pay back the evil farang policies.

What is up with all the sufficiency theory talk?

Personally, I think sufficiency theory is just another royal inspired trend that many will spend time propagating but nobody will end up doing. The generals and juntacrats are not going to give up their Mercedes, their mansions, their Roloxes, their mia nois, and their bottles of 18 year old Scotch. What they will do is to ask the people who have little money and little assets to make sacrifices for the nation and to accept their lot in life of poverty and subsistence living.

But in reality, in terms of policy, it is probably a cover for an anti-foreigner right-wing reactionary agenda.

What does Washington achieve by keeping Thaksin on the sidelines warmed up?

If things truly fall apart, especially after the king dies, it might actually help reinstall him because of his popular support amongst the masses, and because of his new found love and appreciation for globalization. Put simply, Thaksin has democratic legitimacy and he is good for business stability, whereas the generals are looking out for getting the goodies for free and the juntacrats are looking at giving the farang a black eye.

Also, the generals look like bungling fools so far, especially in the South, so the US might have to bring Thaksin back for some more of his tough love policies, especially if the South becomes a hotbed of international terrorism.


fall said...

With junta's increasing defense budget, I doubt the US government would forbid US-based company from joining the bid.

Iraq smoke had not fade, I dont think US government can afford to wage another war for democracy on another third-world country. Win, so what? No important strategic resources, like oil, only rice and rubber. The day of pro-democracy invasion is long gone, look at Korea's nuke situation.

Wait a while, let Thailand sink into another crisis. IMF comes in(again), no more Miyazawa-loan, and a chance for another Thailand grand sales. Win-win situation.

Anonymous said...

Of course the soothsayers have it that Thaksin was brought down by black magic. They say this explains why he was riding high on a massive election win, and then, less than a year later,it only required the sale to Shin Corp to completely fuck him over. They say this is the only way to account for such a fast and overwhelming change in public opinion.

All rubbish of course.