The bloodless coup against a democratically elected government in Thailand last month has forced the United States to review its military relations and suspend aid to one of Washington’s long-standing political allies in Southeast Asia.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which is seeking UN sanctions against the military government in neighboring Myanmar (Burma), has said the Thai military coup was a “U-turn” for democracy in that politically stable region.
Thailand and Myanmar are both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
But an ASEAN diplomat at the United Nations says there is no justifiable comparison between the two military governments.
“The situation in Thailand is quite different from Myanmar,” he told IPS, speaking on condition of anonymity.
No doubt, he admitted, the coup is a setback for democracy, but Thai society is far more resilient and stable and will weather this setback.
“They have many strong anchors, including Buddhism, and a strong reverence for the King,” he said, pointing out that “Thailand will remain a key member of ASEAN, and ASEAN will not do anything to place Thailand in the dock, especially so when they have taken the first steps to restore constitutional government.”
Since U.S. law forbids military assistance to countries where a democratically elected government is ousted by an army junta, the Bush administration has already suspended some $24 million in military aid to Thailand.
The civilian government was ousted when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York to address the UN General Assembly sessions. Instead of returning home, where he is likely to face charges of corruption, Thaksin opted to fly to London, where he is in virtual political exile.
Frida Berrigan, senior research associate at the Arms Trade Resource Center at the New York-based World Policy Institute, said the fiscal year 2007 International Affairs budget request for military aid for Thailand praises the country as a “stable democracy” that “serves as both a model for development and democratization,” and reminds readers that it was designated a “major non-NATO ally” in 2003.
The comparison to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has put Thailand in the category of close U.S. allies such as Israel and Egypt.
“This request was prepared in the early months of 2006 and serves as a record of how quickly things shift,” Berrigan told IPS.
She said the U.S. State Department is seeking to pressure the military junta by suspending military aid and continuing “to urge a rapid return to democratic rule and early elections in Thailand.”
The freeze on $24 million in aid to Thailand including outright grants under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program and under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, as well as funding for peacekeeping operations and counter terrorism will continue until “a democratically elected government takes office.”
According to the London-based military magazine Jane’s Defense Weekly, the U.S. provision to suspend aid is outlined in Section 508 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, which could shut down military cooperation between the two long-standing partners.
“However, the obligations under Section 508 may be open to interpretation,” the magazine noted.
It can be argued that Thaksin was not, in fact, a “duly elected head of government.” Although twice elected to power with substantial popular support, the magazine said, the snap election he called in April 2006 was boycotted by the opposition and declared void by the courts.
Berrigan said that in each of the past few years, Washington has provided Thailand with more than a million dollars in foreign military financing and another $2 billion in military training through IMET.
The request also prioritizes increasing the “counterterrorism capabilities of Thailand’s elite Special Forces units.”
“It is worth noting that the leaders of the military coup come from the ranks of the Special Forces,” Berrigan said.
In addition to receiving millions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Thailand is also a significant buyer of U.S.-made weapons systems taking delivery of some $1.5 billion in military hardware in the last 10 years including $179 million worth of weaponry and hardware in 2004, and another $92 million in 2005.
As recently as April 2006, Berrigan said, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced the possible sale of $246 million worth of six MH-60S helicopters, engines, spare, and repair parts.
Thailand’s military budget hovers at about $2 billion a year which means that taken together, U.S. military aid, support for training and weapons sales makes up about one-twentieth of the Thai military priorities a sizable (but not overwhelming) chunk.
She also said that Thailand announced a 10-year military buildup in 2005, allocating $6.6 billion to beef up its military.
Asked if Thailand will turn to non-U.S. sources for its arms requirements, Berrigan said: “Even before the U.S. freeze, China and India have been courting Bangkok.”
She said that China has sent Thailand two missile-armed offshore patrol boats, with combat systems manufactured by a subsidiary of British Aerospace, and there are plans for two more.
In January, she pointed out, India hosted Thai military personnel in a multilateral maritime exercise that also included Indonesian, Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, and Burmese naval units.
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