Thailand the setting for a new Great Game

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 October, 2009, 12:00am

Reports that the US is once again quietly spending aid money on developing democracy in Thailand has prompted compari- sons with the cold war, a time when the country was a veritable land-based aircraft carrier for America's wars in Indochina and a 'domino' they couldn't afford to lose in the fight against communism.

While the allusion may be overstated, spending by the US Agency for International Development is a reminder of the uncertainty that clouds the future of Washington's most important Southeast Asian ally - and the international interest in its outcome.

That uncertainty has been on many minds in Thailand and across the region over the last week given news that King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been in hospital for the past 13 days with a mild fever, lack of appetite and inflamed lungs. The revered monarch is 81 and has been in poor health for several years.

No king can reign forever and, after more than 60 years on the throne, a complex transition lies ahead. A constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol's considerable moral authority has been earned, rather than simply coming with the job. It will not pass with his title and must be earned again by his nominal heir, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Such a transition would be tough at the best of times. This, however, is not the best of times.

Three years on from the bloodless coup that ousted the democratically-elected Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister, Thailand remains bitterly divided between the establishment and the rural poor who benefited from the tycoon's populism.

At times, Thailand's hard-won democracy has seemed under threat from all sides. Some anti-Thaksin figures have called for a new era of 'guided democracy' under which the military would keep a measure of political power. Others pushed irony aside to justify the coup as necessary to save Thailand's democracy from an effective Thaksin dictatorship.

While the former telecoms tycoon may have trumpeted the virtues of elections since his flight from justice, he showed marked autocratic tendencies during his five-year rule. His reach extended to the Senate and other supposedly independent institutions.

The tension is expected to heighten as Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, an avowed democrat, leads his unelected coalition into its first election next year.

There is certainly plenty for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) - a significant agent of influence during the cold war - to spend its money on. Up to US$40 million is expected to be spent over the next five years across projects to promote the rule of law, governance and the development of political parties.

USAID officials have stated that it is important to US interests that Thailand stays on a 'solid footing', acknowledging the challenges ahead. Thai government officials, meanwhile, insisted they approved the move and have been in lengthy discussions with Washington.

The US, of course, is not the only regional power with interests in Thailand's future. China, too, has been very active, both recently and over the decades. Beijing's discreet but steady courtship of Thailand dates back more than 30 years and can be seen as a diplomatic success story that presages its more recent efforts across Southeast Asia.

Thaksin forged even closer ties with Beijing while also maintaining the expansive US relationship. In 2003, at the height of his powers, Washington declared Thailand to be a 'major non-Nato ally'. Just like the US, China's been active in building contacts across the political, establishment and royalist elite. Its diplomatic presence in Thailand has recently been expanded.

Given the traditionally important strategic role Thailand has played for the US in maintaining its regional presence, even a slight tilt towards China in the years ahead would represent a considerable diplomatic victory.

The cold war may be long dead, but a new Great Game is already under way.