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Bending with the Wind: The Continuity and Flexibility of Thai Foreign Policy

Author(s): Arne Kislenko

Source: International Journal, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 537-561
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd. on behalf of the Canadian International Council
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Bending with the win

The continuity and flexibility of Thai foreign policy

m\t\ ANCIENT SIAMESE PROVERB likens foreign policy to the 'bam

in the wind'; always solidly rooted, but flexible enough to be
whichever way the wind blows in order to survive.1 More than me
pragmatism, this adage reflects a long-cherished, philosophic
approach to international relations, the precepts of which are ver
much enshrined in Thai culture and religion. Throughout its long a
frequently violent history, Thailand - or Siam, as it was known un
1 939 - has consistently crafted a cautious, calculated foreign policy an
jealously guarded its independence. Indeed, it has occasionally gone
extraordinary lengths to preserve it. Despite its controversial allian
with Japan during World War II, and its support of the United States
the Vietnam War, Thailand has carefully avoided anything more th
temporary arrangements with foreign powers. At a regional level,
Thais have exercised a foreign policy blend of prudence, pragmatis
and cynical opportunism. Surrounded by historical enemies, and ce
tral in an area of the world long plagued by revolution and w
Thailand has nonetheless emerged in the 21st century as a conside
able regional power. Notwithstanding its current economic plight a
the on-going demands of political reform, Thailand remains a pivo
player in Southeast Asia.

Assistant Professor of History, Ryerson University, and instructor in the International Relation
Programme, University of Toronto. The author would like to thank Margaret MacMillan,
Robert Accinelli, and At Wargofor their input and observations on various versions of this art

i William J. Klausner, Reflections on Thai Culture (Bangkok: Siam Society 1981), 79-


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Geography has always played a primary role in Thai foreign rela-

tions. Thailand lies in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, extending
like an elephant s trunk south between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf
of Thailand into peninsular Malaysia. Myanmar, or Burma, shares
Thailand's western and part of its northeastern boundaries, while Laos
shares its longest border to the north and east. To the southeast is
Cambodia. The population of Thailand in 2000 was approximately 62
million, making it the fourth most populous nation (behind
Indonesia, Vietnam, and Philippines) in Southeast Asia and second on
the mainland. Its economy is one of the most diverse in the region. It
is the world s largest exporter of rice and natural rubber, and other agri-
cultural products make up a large share of its economy. Fishing has
always been a staple, as was forestry until the late 1980s. Over the past
twenty years tourism has become a major facet of the Thai economy. In
recent years Thailand has also developed its industrial and manufac-
turing sector, particularly with respect to automotives, petrochemicals,
electronics, mining, and oil.2 Its tremendous economic growth during
the 1980s and early 1990s made Thailand one of the 'little dragons' of
Asia. However, during that period its insatiable appetite for natural
resources put considerable strain on Thailand's already tense relations
with its neighbours. The Thai economy has adapted considerably since
the 1997 crash, which, in turn, has necessitated a practical assessment
of its foreign policy objectives.
True to the bamboo analogy, Thailand's foreign relations have
always demonstrated great flexibility and pragmatism. Several early
kingdoms were extremely proficient in using diplomacy to help unite
the Thai people and overcome their larger Khmer and Pagan neigh-
bours.3 With the arrival of European powers in Southeast Asia the need
for a shrewd foreign policy was even greater. The Ayutthaya Empire,
the predominant Thai kingdom from roughly the middle of the 14th
century until its collapse in 1767, pursued intricate policies on trade,
political, and military relations with a number of foreign powers. Its
successor, theThonburi or Bangkok empire, significantly expanded its
power in the region by maintaining the emphasis on diplomacy. In

2 National Identity Board, Office of the Prime Minister, Thailand into the2ooo*s
(Bangkok: National Identity Board, Kingdom of Thailand, 2000), 168-95.
3 David K. Wyatt, Thailand: A Short History (New Haven a: Yale University Press
1982), chs 2-4 passim. See also, Rong Syamananda, A History of Thailand (5th ed;
Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University /Thai Watana Panich 1986), chs 5-7 passim.


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Thai foreign policy

fact, the Chakri dynasty that founded the empire (and from which the
current Thai royal family is descended) consolidated most of the Thai
kingdoms and gave rise to the modern Siamese state.4 Moreover,
despite numerous difficulties with European rivals for control of the
region, Siam emerged in the 20th century as the only country in
Southeast Asia never to have been colonized, undoubtedly in large part
because of its ability to play off European adversaries through skilful
Opportunism has also been a hallmark of Thai foreign policy. For
example, the Anglo-French entente in 1904 effectively ended the rival-
ry between the two largest imperial powers in Southeast Asia. That put
Siam in a very difficult spot, sandwiched between the British in Malaya
and Burma and the French in Indochina. No longer able to play one
off against the other, as they had done so well for so long, the Siamese
were unable to stave off European demands. Between 1904 and 1909,
Siam was forced to cede claims to provinces in Laos, Cambodia, and
the northern states in Malaya.5
Desperate to counter-balance the English and the French, Siam
tried to woo Germany and Russia to take a stake in the region.
However, the real opportunity to check Britain and France came with
World War I, which severely undermined European colonialism and
helped to transform the United States into a global power. Aware of the
American opposition to imperialism, the Siamese hoped that the
United States would discourage renewed British and French demands
on their territory. Fearing that their neutrality might further European
claims, the Siamese seized the opportunity to be on the winning side,
which American entry in the war ensured. In July 1917, just three
months after the United States entered the conflict, Siam declared war
on the Central Powers. Although the declaration expressed only moral

4 John S. Girling, Thailand: Society and Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press
1981), ch 1; Wyatt, Thailand, chs 5- 7 passim.

5 Virginia Thompson, Thailand: The New Siam (New York: Paragon 1941), 40-4. This
followed nearly two decades of debate and conflict over the disputed lands, includ-
ing a brief war with France in 1893 in which Siam was defeated. Anglo-French co-
operation in Southeast Asia predates the 1904 entente cordiale and led to a host of
agreements that impinged on Siamese independence. By 1909, Siam had ceded
456,000 square kilometres of territory - roughly half of the Thai empire -with
severe economic consequences. The death of King Chulalongkorn in 1910, after 42
years overseeing Siam's expansion and modernization, and the dismemberment of
the empire contributed to political unrest and in many ways marked the beginning
of the end for the absolute monarchy.


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Arne Kislenko

justification, the Siamese clearly anticipated that it would give them a

seat alongside the Allies at any postwar conference, thereby again
undermining British and French designs.6
Similarly, the road to World War II demonstrated flexibility and
opportunism in Thai foreign policy. In 1932 absolute monarchy in
Siam came to an end. Years of economic stagnation and political and
social change led to a revolution largely inspired by Western-educated
Siamese. This ushered in a difficult period of instability for the coun-
try, during which extremist ideologies gained considerable currency.
The militant, xenophobic nationalism of Japan was particularly
important in shaping the Siamese polity. Anti-Western rhetoric struck
a deep chord with many Siamese, who associated the decline of their
empire with European colonialism. Such ardent nationalism became
the vehicle for the military's ascendancy. By 1938 the brief experiment
with constitutional democracy ended, and Siam - renamed Thailand
the following year - began down a perilous path.
Thailand's direction was largely shaped by its controversial prime
minister (1938-44; 1948-57), Luang Phibunsongkhram, or Phibun,
who was enamoured of Japanese and German militarism. Through
extremely nationalistic economic and political reforms, Phibun want-
ed to create his sang chat (new nation). He also pursued a dangerous
foreign policy that took its cues from changes in international rela-
tions. Premised on Japans unchecked rise in Asia, Thai foreign policy
became decisively anti-Western. In 1940, Thailand took advantage of
the French defeat by Hitlers armies to 'reclaim* its lost provinces in
Indochina. The Franco-Thai War of 1940-1 was decided not so much
in the field as by Japans intervention. Having gained access to Vietnam
via an agreement with the German-controlled Vichy government in
France, Japanese forces were poised to take all of Indochina. In
November 1940 Japan offered to broker negotiations between the
Thai and the French. Not surprisingly, the results favoured the Thais,
who were drawn even closer to Japanese interests in Southeast Asia.7

6 Adulyasa Soonthornrojana, 'The Rise of U.S.-Thai Relations, 1945-1975/ PhD dis-

sertation, University of Akron, 1986, 6-9.

7 Craig J. Reynolds in Craig J. Reynolds, ed, National Identity and its Defenders in
Thailand, 1939-1989 (Clayton, Australia: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies,
Monash University, 1991), 11-31. For an interesting biography of Phibun, see B.J.
Terwiel, Field Marshal Plaek Phibun Songkhram (St Lucia, Australia: University of
Queensland Press 1980).


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Thai foreign policy

Ultimately Phibuns opportunism led to even more dramatic action.

Pressed by Japan to allow its forces through Thailand en route to attack
the British in Burma, Malaya, and Singapore, the Phibun government
eventually acquiesced and signed a military alliance with Tokyo. Just
over a month later, on 25 January 1942, Thailand declared war on
Britain and the United States.8 Fortunately for Thailand, the United
States did not recognize the declaration. Instead the administration of
Franklin Roosevelt chose to acknowledge a government-in-exile based
in Washington. Many Thais supported this government and the resis-
tance groups that opposed Japanese occupation.9 American support
after the war was invaluable in limiting British and French demands
for reparations. Moreover, in the context of the emerging cold war,
Thailand found in the United States an essential ally.
Thailand's relationship with the United States after 1945 was
extremely important in shaping the modern Thai nation. With the
emergence of the Peoples Republic of China as a communist power in
Asia, American foreign policy was intent on securing as many allies on
the continent as possible. And so, Washington conveniendy reinterpret-
ed the extremism of Thailand s military government. Fearing the spread
of communism throughout Southeast Asia, the United States chose to
see Thailand as an anti-communist bastion, and even a 'forward base.'10

8 There is much controversy surrounding the Thai declaration of war. Late on j

December 1941, the Japanese ambassador in Bangkok informed the Thai govern-
ment of its attack on and declaration of war against the United States and formally
requested the right of transit for Japanese troops in Indochina. Phibun was touring
Thailand's newly regained Cambodian provinces. In his absence, the foreign minis-
ter, Direk jayanama, refused the Japanese request. Before Phibun could return to
Bangkok, the Japanese attacked numerous Thai military positions. To add to the
confusion, British forces in Malaya tried to stop the Japanese by crossing into
Thailand. The Thais quickly found themselves fighting both the British and Japanese
armies. When Phibun finally made it back to the capital, he ordered a ceasefire on
all fronts and accepted the Japanese request for transit. No doubt subsequent
Japanese victories in Southeast Asia helped convince Phibun that an alliance with
Tokyo was in Thailand's best interests. There is, however, debate over whether he
really wanted an alliance with Japan, sensing its victory over the West, or whether
he believed that it was the only possible way to preserve Thailand's independence.
In any event, the alliance with Japan split the Thai polity and the government.
Dissenting officials quickly set up a govern ment-in -exile in Washington. See Edward
Bruce Reynolds, Thailand and Japan's Southern Advance, 1940-1945 (New York: St
Martin's 1994).

9 John B. Haseman, The Thai Resistance Movement During World Warn (Chiang Mai:
Silkworm 2002).

10 Daniel Fineman, A Special Relationship: The United States and Military

Government in Thailand, 1947-1958 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997),


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Arne Kislenko

Exonerated for his war-time record, Phibun returned as prime minister

in April 1948 with the help of the Thai military and the tacit approval
of the administration of Harry S Truman. As the cold war in Asia
intensified through the 1950s, military authoritarianism in Thailand
became entrenched, buoyed by American economic and military assis-
tance.11 Despite some occasional concerns about its distinctly unde-
mocratic rule, successive United States administrations saw Thailand
as an invaluable anti-communist ally, and even as a model for develop-
ment in the Third World.
The United States-Thai relationship intensified as American
involvement in Vietnam increased. Indeed, next to South Vietnam,
Thailand was the most important ally the United States had. Nearly 80
per cent of American bombing campaigns flown against North
Vietnam were orchestrated out of Thailand. Nearly 1 1,000 Thais, or
15 per cent of the country's armed forces, served in Vietnam. Thailand
was a major 'rest and recreation' destination for American servicemen
in Vietnam and an important logistical base for communications and
transportation. For over twenty years, Thailand was the primary base
for a wide range of secret United States operations in Indochina. An
estimated 22,000 Thai military took part in myriad plans and in fact
made up the bulk of Parmee clandestine in Laos.12
During and after the American war in Vietnam there were sugges-
tions that Thailand was a mercenary of the United States. While the
economic benefits of the relationship cannot be dismissed, it is clear
that Thailand had much more at stake than this analysis presumes. The
presence of nearly 40,000 Americans brought massive social and eco-
nomic change that was a definite challenge to Thai culture.13 The Thai

n R. Sean Randolph, The United States and Thailand: Alliance Dynamics, 1950-1985
(Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California Berkeley, 1986),

12 Arne Kislenko, 'The Vietnam War, Thailand and the U.S./ in Yone Sugita, Jon
Thares Davidann, and Richard Jensen, eds, Trans-Pacific Modernity: An America Asia
in the Pacific Century (Westport a: Greenwood, forthcoming 2003).

13 Between 1950 and 1975 Thailand received approximately US$650 million in eco-
nomic assistance; a further $940 million for Thai defence and security; $760 million
in operating costs, including the purchase of military equipment; and $250 million
to construct six major air bases in Thailand. American servicemen stationed in the
country and those on leave from Vietnam pumped another US$850 million into the
economy. With over two billion dollars in total assistance between 1965 and 1975,
Thailand was the second largest recipient of American aid in Southeast Asia next to
Vietnam. See Robert J. McMahon, 'What difference did it make? Assessing the


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Thai foreign policy

polity was obsessed with the relationship with the United States, and
the military government depended on it for its legitimacy. Although
the communist insurgency in Thailand never seriously threatened the
stability of the country, the success of communist forces in Laos and
Cambodia definitely did. A large, closely knit, and affluent ethnic
Chinese community in Thailand only added to the fear that Beijing
was acting out an ancient impulse to dominate the region.14 In this
view, although communism was a dangerous commodity on its own, it
was also a 'banner' behind which the old Chinese dragon could spread
its wings. Moreover, by helping the Americans to prosecute their war,
Thailand risked alienating itself from virtually all of its neighbours. As
the old sage of Thai politics (and twice prime minister), Seni Pramoj,
warned in 1969: 'we have let the U.S. forces use our country to bomb
Hanoi. When the Americans go away, they won't take that little bit of
history with them/15
Many Thai scholars point out that the close relationship between
Thailand and the United States during the Vietnam War era was not
such a radical departure from traditional foreign policy paradigms. In
its advocacy of violence, revolution, and atheism, communism was the
antithesis of Thai cultural traditions and therefore a fundamental
threat to the country.16 The United States was willing and able to try to
prevent the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, and thus the rela-
tionship was a convergence of interests, entirely in keeping with the prin-
ciple of flexibility. This contention is supported by the course of
Thailand's external relations after the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon's
rapprochement with China in 1972 and the American withdrawal from
Vietnam in 1973 were catalysts for major political developments in
Thailand. In October 1973, a groundswell of public opposition toppled

Vietnam War's impact on Southeast Asia/ in Lloyd C. Gardner and Ted Gittinger, eds,
International Perspectives on Vietnam (College Station: Texas a&m University Press
2000), 202; and Robert J. Muscat, Thailand and the United States: Development,
Security, and Foreign Aid (New York: Columbia University Press 1990).

14 Ross Prizia, Thailand in Transition: The Role ofOppositional Forces (Honolulu:

University of Hawaii Press 1985), 9-20.

15 Quoted in W. Scott Thompson, Unequal Partners: Philippine and Thai Relations

with the United States, 1965-1975 (Lexington ma: Lexington Books 1975), 161.

16 Likhit Diravegan, Thai Politics: Selected Aspects of Development and Change

(Bangkok: Tri-Sciences 1985), 534-9; and Somsakdi Xuto, ed, Government and
Politics of Thailand (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1987), intro.


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Arne Kislenko

the military government of Thanom Kittachakorn. Shaky, civilian-led

liberal coalition governments renewed the country's experiment with
democracy until 1976, when another revolution brought conservative
forces back into power with the support of the military.17 Despite such
manifest changes, Thai foreign policy in the 1970s remained remark-
ably consistent. Surviving in the post- Vietnam war era was the only
priority, and this meant accommodating communism.18 Diplomatic
overtures to Beijing, initiated by civilian governments, carried on
regardless, while relations with the United States remained surprising-
ly strong considering American withdrawal, in keeping with the old
adage about yiep rua song khaem (placing a foot on either side of the
keel to avoid capsizing).19
Many ofThailand s current foreign policy problems emerged during
or as a result of the wars in Indochina. One of the most enduring lega-
cies has been Thailand's relations with Cambodia. Although the two
countries were bitter enemies long before the cold war, developments
during the past four decades have been critical in shaping current
affairs. Throughout much of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s,
Cambodia tried desperately to avoid being engulfed by the struggle
unfolding in Laos and Vietnam. Led by the mercurial Prince (now
King) Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's professed neutrality greatly
angered Thailand. The Thais were convinced that Sihanouk was a
communist puppet, while the Cambodians accused Bangkok of clan-
destinely supporting anti-government rebels.20 Thailand had difficulty
understanding Washington's patience with Sihanouk, which frequent-
ly strained United States-Thai relations. The situation improved some-
what when Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970, but American with-
drawal from Indochina and the emergence of the communist Khmer

17 Surachart Bamrungsuk, United States Foreign Policy and Thai Military Rule 1947-
1977 (Bangkok: Editions Duangkamol 1988), 170-6.
18 As early as 1966 the government anticipated American disengagement. Shortly
after Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run for president in 1968, the Thai foreign
minister, Thanat Khoman, made it clear that his government might seek an accom-
modation with China. Similar statements became increasingly familiar as the
American commitment in Vietnam waned. See R.K. Jain, China and Thailand 1949-
1983 (New Delhi: Radiant 1984), 155.

19 Muthiah Alagappa, The National Security of Developing States: Lessons from

Thailand (Dover ma: Auburn House 1987), 58.

20 Milton Osborne, Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (Honolulu:

University of Hawaii Press 1994), ch 8.


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Thai foreign policy

Rouge government in Phnom Penh by 1975 meant that Thai-

Cambodian relations again dominated Bangkok's foreign policy agen-
da. This was especially true when Vietnamese forces invaded and occu-
pied Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge and its notorious
leader, Pol Pot, into the jungles bordering Thailand. In one of the most
bizarre diplomatic arrangements of the cold war, Thailand found itself
in collusion with both China and the United States in support of the
group, simply because they were all opposed to the Vietnamese-backed
Thailand's motives in supporting the Khmer Rouge were in part his-
torical. Expanding its influence in Cambodia was a constant in Thai
foreign policy for several centuries. Some scholars point out that the
relationship with the Khmer Rouge was also conceived and supported
by Thai elites, predominantly in the military, who saw the arrange-
ment as an opportunity to exploit Cambodia's natural resources.22
Indeed, Thai connections to illicit business and nefarious characters in
Cambodia continue today.23 It has also been argued that Thai involve-
ment with Cambodia since 1975 has been largely determined by
national security considerations. The Vietnamese occupation was seen
as a serious threat to Thailand and led to fighting between the two over
border incursions.24 Moreover, the Cambodian crisis produced a flood
of refugees into Thailand over more than twenty years, with consider-
able political and economic ramifications.25 Also in keeping with the
national security analysis is Thailand's detente with China throughout
the Cambodian crisis. Confronted with American withdrawal from
Southeast Asia and apparent Vietnamese aggression on their border,
the Thais made improved relations with China a top priority.

21 Michael Haas, Cambodia, Pol Pot and the United States: The Faustian Pact (New
York: Praeger 1991), 79-120.

22 Ibid, 64-5.

23 Kusuma Snitwongse, 'Thai foreign policy in the global age: principle or profit?'
Contemporary Southeast Asia 23(August 2001), 189-92; and Leszek Buszynski,
Thailand's foreign policy: management of a regional vision,' Asian Survey
34(August 1994), 730-2.

24 Kusuma Snitwongse, 'Thirty years of asean: achievements through political coop-

eration,' Pacific Review 11(1998), 187-8. The two major incidents were in June 1980
and April 1984.

25 Elizabeth Becker, 'The progress of peace in Cambodia,' Current History Search

1990), 169-73; and Josephine Reynell, Political Pawns: Refugees on the Thai-
Kampuchean Border (Oxford: Refugee Studies Programme 1989).


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Arne Kislenko

Since the end of the Cambodian crisis in the early 1990s, Thai for-
eign policy has been decisively more balanced. The United Nations
intervention in Cambodia and international efforts to broker a peace
between rival factions drew some attention to Thailand's security con-
cerns. As well, Thai officials were instrumental and constructive in
negotiations. More importantly, the peace process in Cambodia coin-
cided with the tumultuous politics in Thailand in 1992, which forced
the military from government and began the country's current period
of reform. The 1 992 coup helped take control over the ideological con-
tent and direction of foreign policy away from the Thai army, which
was preoccupied with the Vietnamese threat from Cambodia.26 One of
the most important developments accompanying this change has been
Bangkok's rapprochement with Vietnam, which paralleled China's
de'tente with Hanoi.27 Prior to the Vietnamese withdrawal from
Cambodia, dialogue with Hanoi was impossible for the Thai govern-
ment. It would have severely undermined Bangkok's diplomatic efforts
with China, and, at least before the administration of Bill Clinton re-
established relations with Vietnam in 1995, would have alienated the
United States as well.
Today Thai-Cambodian relations are at a crossroad. The historical
animosity between the two countries cannot be erased, and tension
clearly exists, particularly over border control, which is still disputed in
some areas. Illegal logging, mining, and other illicit businesses are at
the heart of the problem, although in the past few years some Thai gov-
ernments have made efforts to curtail such activity.28 On the whole,
however, relations between the two countries have been steadily
improving. The best example is the fact that Thailand sponsored
Cambodia for admission to the Association of South-East Asian
Nations (ASEAN) as early as 1995. Although the coup d'etat by
Cambodian strongman Hun Sen in 1997 delayed the process,
Thailand maintained its support for admission, which was finally
achieved in April 1999.29 In June 2000, Thai Prime Minister Chuan

26 Leszek Buszynski, 'Thailand's foreign policy/ 730-2.

27 Surin Maisrikrod, 'Thailand's policy dilemmas towards Indochina/ Contemporary

Southeast Asia i3(December 1991), 288.
28 Kusuma Snitwongse, 'Thai foreign policy in the global age: principle or profit?'
Contemporary Southeast Asia 23(August 2001), 190-2.

29 Peter Eng, 'Transforming asean/ Washington Quarterly 22 (winter 1999), 52-3.


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Thai foreign policy

Leekpai visited Cambodia, where he initiated discussion on a range of

bilateral issues, including border demarcation, the narcotics trade, and
economic development.30
Thailand has employed similarly constructive engagement with
Laos. In many ways, Laos has historically been even more of a security
concern for Thailand than is Cambodia. Bordering the remote and
economically disadvantaged northeast, Laos was the 'dagger* held to
the heart of Thailand during the Vietnam War era. Vietnamese and
Chinese domination of Laos threatened to intensify a communist
insurgency based in Thailand's northeast, which compounded the
regions political distance from Bangkok.31 Thus, the communist take-
over of Laos in 1975 was a serious national security concern for
Thailand. More than a decade elapsed before any change in the mutu-
al animosity between the two countries was evident.
The first sign came with a much publicized foreign policy initiative
of the government of Chatichai Choonhavan, Thailand's prime minis-
ter from 1988 to 1991. In January 1989, Chatichai made a speech
welcoming' Indochina into the Southeast Asian community. He made
it clear that Thailand was the centre of access and economic develop-
ment in the region and, with a booming Thai economy adding to his
confidence, detailed his Suwanaphume (Golden Land) concept.
Chatichai envisioned a host of regional economic development pro-
grammes, with Thailand as the regional hub. His catchy slogan was 'to
turn Indochina from battlefield to marketplace.' Cynical assessments of
the Suwanaphume policy pointed out that Chatichai and his associates in
the military and economic establishments stood to profit personally
from such plans, especially given the wide range of illicit business con-
nections they maintained.32 Some observers noted the similarity of

30 Chayachoke Chulasiriwongs, 'Thailand's relations with new asean members:

solving problems and creating images/ in Daljit Singh and Athony L. Smith, eds,
Southeast Asian Affairs 2001 (Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asian Studies
2001), 348-9.
31 Geoffrey C. Gunn, Political Struggles in Laos, 1930-1954 (Bangkok: Duangkamol
1988), passim; and Charles F. Keyes, 'Ethnic identity and loyalty of villagers in
northeastern Thailand,' As/an Survey 6(|uly 1966), 85-90.

32 By 1990, many Thais saw the Chatichai government as thoroughly corrupt, and
Chatichai was removed in a military coup in February 1991. See Kevin Hewson, 'Of
regimes, state and pluralities: Thai politics enters the 1990s,' in Kevin Hewson,
Richard Robison, and Garry Rodan, eds, Southeast Asia in the 1990s:
Authoritarianism, Democracy and Capitalism (St Leonards, Australia: Allen and
Unwin 1993), ch 7.


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Arne Kislenko

Suwanaphumeto the Vassal state' system on which the ancient Siamese

empire was built, thereby underlining the continuity in Thai foreign
policy.33 Considering the number of Thais who regard the Lao as their
little brother,' given their ethnic and linguistic connections, officials
in Laos were worried that the plan was simply a mask for traditional
Thai colonialism.
In some respects Chatichai s initiative sought to put a legitimate face
on a variety of shady business ventures in Laos, Cambodia, and Burma.
Illegal fishing, logging, and mining have been an almost constant fea-
ture of Southeast Asia for the past few decades. In fact, there was a
tense 1 00-day military stand-off between Thailand and Laos over
dubious Lao logging concessions in 1987-8. Government, and partic-
ularly military, complicity in the drug trade on both sides of the border
also complicated Thai-Lao relations. The Golden Land idea was
accompanied by several major development projects in the early
1990s, including a four-lane highway from Bangkok through
Vientiane and beyond. Laos also stood to gain from the Greater
Mekong Sub-Region development programme, backed by the World
Bank and the Asian Development Bank.34 However, the Lao govern-
ment today remains wary of Thai assistance. The 1997 financial crisis
severely undermined Thailand's position as the leading foreign
investor in Laos and consequently set back many plans associated with
the Greater Mekong project. Worse still, when Thai companies could
not deliver on promises of electrical power made to Vientiane, the Lao
government looked to China and Vietnam.35
Political issues have also weakened Thai-Lao relations. A spate of
bombings in Laos in the past two years has been blamed on the Lao
Neutral Justice and Democratic Party, which the Vientiane govern-
ment claims is supported by dissidents in Canada, the United States,
and elsewhere - with Thai connivance. To Lao leaders, the fact that the
Thai government has refused to extradite 28 suspected members of the

33 Paul Battersby, 'Border politics and the broader politics of Thailand's internation-
al relations in the 1990s: from communism to capitalism/ Pacific Affairs 7i(winter
1998), 473-9.
34 Ibid. See also, Khatarya Urn, 'Thailand and the dynamics of economic and securi-
ty complexes in mainland Southeast Asia/ Contemporary Southeast Asia
13 (December 1991), 245-70.
35 Kusuma Snitwongse, 'Thai foreign policy in the global age/ 193-5.


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Thai foreign policy

group is only confirmation of Bangkok's involvement.36 In July 2000, a

group of Hmong rebels opposed to the Lao government seized a Thai
customs post on the border near Ubon Ratchatani. Lao forces killed a
number of the rebels. The Thai military took the rest as prisoners but
refused to turn them over, again earning the distrust of the Lao govern-
ment.37 Although Thailand sponsored Laos' admission to ASEAN in 1 997
and has recently resumed some economic initiatives with Vientiane,
many Laotians continue to view their neighbour with suspicion.
This sentiment is shared by Myanmar, or Burma. Thai-Burmese rela-
tions have rarely been good. In fact, conflict with Burma is a historical
constant for Thailand and did much to shape the Thai foreign relations
psyche. Since Burma's independence from Britain in 1948 Thai-
Burmese relations have been at the forefront for both countries. Burma's

sad fifty-five year legacy of revolt, insurgency, and war has significantly
undermined its potential threat to Thailand. However, tensions between
the two have remained consistently high. During the 1950s and early
1960s, Thailand gave safe haven to irregular forces of the Chinese
Kuomintang, many of whom joined rebellious ethnic minorities in their
war against the Burmese government after the communist revolution in
China. By the mid-1960s, Kuomintang soldiers were also deeply
involved with the lucrative opium trade and arms smuggling, so much so
that they exercised considerable power in the volatile 'Golden Triangle'
border region of Laos, Burma, and Thailand.38 Even more troubling
from Burma's point of view is Thailand's long support for non-commu-
nist ethnic insurgents operating along the border. For nearly the entire
duration of the Burmese crisis Thailand has given sanctuary to Karen,
Shan, Mon, and other minorities. Because it is home to sizeable popula-
tions of these groups, Thailand is cautious not to alienate them. During
much of the cold war, the Thai government quietly supported the
groups, largely out of a desire to keep Burma destabilized. Several promi-
nent Thai leaders also accumulated enormous personal wealth through
connections with insurgents involved in the drug trade.39

36 Chayachoke Chulasiriwongs, 'Thailand's relations with new asean members/


37 'Asia 2001 Yearbook/ Far Eastern Economic Review, 212.

38 Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity with the Global Drug Trade
(New York: Lawrence Hill 1991), 349-60.

39 Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (Bangkok:
Silkworm 1999), 305-22.


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Arne Kislenko

With the political reformation of Thailand in the 1990s, political

motivations vis-a-vis the Burmese crisis became somewhat nobler. The
Thai record on human rights has substantially improved. Controls on
the media have been lifted, and the political consciousness of the Thai
people has increased. These factors have drawn attention to the plight
of ethnic insurgents along Thailand s frontier, the majority of whom
are ill-fed, uneducated, and desperately poor. Leaving them to face the
Burmese army would be extremely difficult for any Thai government,
given national and international attention.
However, some Thai politicians see the ethnic insurgency different-
ly. Since the introduction of Chatichai s Golden Land concept, eco-
nomic ties with Burma have become paramount. The visit of the Thai
defence minister, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, to Burma in 1988 seemed to
put to an end to cold war tensions. Moreover, he secured from the
Burmese government valuable resource concessions in exchange for a
Thai promise to withdraw support from ethnic insurgents.40 Thailand
thus became the leading proponent of 'constructive engagement' with
the repressive military regime in Rangoon. Despite the many changes
in Thai politics since then, maintaining a dialogue - and trade - with
Burma has remained a salient feature of Thai foreign policy. In 1993
Chuan Leekpai s government proposed an economic 'northern quad-
rangle' zone extending through the Golden Triangle to Yunnan
province in China. In 1994, the Burmese government issued major
forestry concessions to Thai companies and entered into talks on the
construction of a gas pipeline from the Martaban Gulf into Thailand,
even though both deals involved lands controlled by ethnic insur-
gents.41 Braving condemnation for doing business with such a notori-
ous regime, Thailand continued to pursue 'constructive engagement*
for most of the 1 990s. Today Thai foreign policy strategists acknowl-
edge the economic necessity of including Rangoon in any regional
development that includes China, which needs better road and sea
access to Southeast Asia through Burma. The Thais also understand
that, contrary to the cold war mentality, an unstable Burma is not in
Bangkok's best interests. The collapse of Burma would destabilize the
region and possibly promote a Chinese-Indian rivalry in the void.

40 Leszek Buszynski, Thailand and Myanmar: the perils of constructive engage-

ment,' Pacific Review 11(1998), 293.

4i Leszek Buszynski, 'Thailand's foreign policy,' 735-6.


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Thai foreign policy

More likely is the dire effect a collapse would have on the 2400 kilo-
metre Thai border with Burma, of which only 58 kilometres is legally

'Constructive engagement' has, however, been severely tested.

Thailand's decision to withdraw support from ethnic insurgents in
Burma meant that many groups were forced to surrender to the gov-
ernment in Rangoon. One of the last major groups remaining, the
Karen National Union, was fractured along religious and political
lines. One faction, largely controlled by Christian Karen, continued
the struggle against the Burmese government. The other faction, the
Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), not only capitulated but
also joined the government in attacks against its former allies. As a
result of those developments, Burmese forces were able to focus their
military efforts, and, in 1997, they launched new offensives along the
Thai border. In the process, there were several incursions into Thai ter-
ritory in pursuit of the Karen.43 In previous years, the Thai government
had largely overlooked such violations. However, reeling from the
Asian economic crisis that began in Thailand earlier that year, and
acutely aware of their country's own ethnic populations, Thai leaders
had to take a more forceful stance. Since 1997 the border between
Thailand and Burma has remained tense. Occasional skirmishes
between the two countries' armed forces have not been uncommon.
Thai leaders have not abandoned 'constructive engagement,' but they
have refined it to include a mix of economic inducements and political
encouragement even as they maintain a sizeable military presence
along the border.
Unfortunately for Thailand, there are few positive signs that the
Burmese government is interested in reforming its ways. The recent
release of Nobel laureate and leader of the main opposition group,
Aung San Suu Kyi, from years of house arrest did not herald any sub-
stantive political reform. Nor did Burma's admission to ASEAN in 1997
bring about any real change in Burma's external relations. In fact,
Burmese-Thai relations have of late been even more strained. In early
October 1999 a group of Burmese students seized their country's
embassy in Bangkok in protest against their government. Much to
Rangoon's dismay, Thailand accommodated the student demands and
eventually flew them to the Burmese border, where they were released

42 Kusuma Snitwongse, 'Thai foreign policy in the global age/ 197-8.

43 Paul Battersby, 'Border politics and the broader politics/ 473-89.


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without charges. This followed months of often heated exchanges

between the two governments over the drug trade, illegal workers, and
fishing rights. Burma responded to the incident by closing its border
with Thailand for seven weeks and imposing a ban on Thai fishermen
and loggers.44 Then, in January 2000, commandos from the 'God s
Army' splinter group of the Karen National Union occupied a hospital
in the Thai city of Ratchaburi. This time the Thai military took more
forceful action, killing ten of the commandos. Still, border control,
refugees from Burma's war on ethnic insurgents, and the drug trade
continue to exacerbate Thai-Burmese relations. Thailand's 1998 com-
mitment to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR) forced the government to stop the repatriation of
Burmese dissidents, which has greatly frustrated the government in
Rangoon. Similarly, Thailand has stepped up its drug interdiction in
the Golden Triangle to co-operate with American enforcement agen-
cies, again seen by Rangoon as an anti-Burmese action.45
Problems with Burma have even spilled over into Thai politics. Prime
Minister Chuan Leekpai was sharply criticized by his opponents during
the January 2001 election campaign for being the only leader of an
ASEAN state not to have visited Burma. Extolling the virtues of an even
more aggressive Constructive engagement* policy with Rangoon, the
new prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has, however, run afoul of the
military. In July 2002 Thaksin warned the Thai army not to 'over-react'
to repeated Burmese incursions on Thai soil and essentially to ignore
Burmese shelling of Thai military positions along the border where
Shan insurgents hide out. Although there is no suggestion of a military
coup against Thaksin, he has clearly alienated the armed forces.46 The

44 'Asia 2000 Yearbook/ Far Eastern Economic Review, 210.

45 Chayachoke Chulasiriwongs, Thailand's relations with new asean members/

345-7. Burma is the biggest source country for heroin in Southeast Asia. Recently,
however, heroin and opium production has been supplanted by methamphetamines
as the favourite in the drug trade from Burma. An estimated 600 million tablets
were produced in Burma in 2000, with evidence of a 20 per cent increase over 2001;
most are destined for consumption in Thailand - much to the chagrin of Thai author-
ities. Thailand alleges that the Burmese government has extensive ties to the drug
trade via the United Wa State Army in the Shan states, which produces the nar-
cotics. Burmese authorities blame Thai complicity with the drug trade through other
insurgent groups. See also 'Asia 2001 Yearbook/ Far Eastern Economic Review, 207-
9, and Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 November 2001, 29.

46 Far Eastern Economic Review, 27 June 2002, 19. For an interesting study on the
Thai military and its role in government, see Suchit Bunbongkarn, The military and
democracy in Thailand/ in R.J. May and Viberto Selochan, eds, The Military and
Democracy in Asia and the Pacific (London: C. Hurst 1998), ch 3. See also, James


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Thai foreign policy

Thai military has also been angered by revelations that Bangkok may
have unknowingly helped the Burmese air force to buy ten MiG-29
fighters from Russia, worth an estimated US$130 million. The down-
payment likely came from royalties paid to Rangoon by the govern-
ment-owned Petroleum Authority of Thailand for gas piped ashore
from the Gulf of Martaban.47

Thailand's relationship with Malaysia has been relatively easy com-

pared to the troubles with Burma. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s,
Malaysia was thought to be sponsoring a small group of Muslim insur-
gents in southern Thailand. The Malaysian government s long struggle
with communist insurgents based there was also an obstacle in bilater-
al relations. However, the two countries today seem to have a fairly
solid rapport. Malaysia effectively crushed its communists, while the
Thai government has had few problems with its Muslim population,
which makes up roughly five per cent of the total. During the 1980s
and 1990s, consistent efforts by Bangkok to promote the south's
unique culture and to guarantee the religious freedom of Muslims
undermined the insurgency. Today, one major group, the Council of
the Muslim People of Patani (MPRMP), remains opposed to the Thai
government, but its appeal is generally limited and there is little evi-
dence that it has any backing from foreign states. Still, in 1997
Malaysia's prime minister, Mahatir Mohamad, went to Songkhla in
southern Thailand specifically to ask Muslims there to remain loyal to
the Thai government.48 There is, however, cause for some concern. So
far in 2002, hit-and-run assassins, thought to be part of the Muslim
insurgency, have murdered eighteen police officers in southern
Thailand. Thaksin has ordered an additional 1 500 officers to the south-
ern provinces as a precaution, particularly in light of suggestions that
the MPRMP is connected to Osama bin-Ladens Al-Qaeda network.49
Lately, the Thai-Malaysian relationship has been more troubled by
economic issues than by insurgents. In the wake of Asia's 1997 financial

Ockey, 'Thailand: the struggle to redefine civil-military relations/ in Muthiah

Alagappa, ed, Coercion and Governance: The Declining Political Role of the Military
in Asia (Stanford ca: Stanford University Press 2001), ch 7.

47 Far Eastern Economic Review, 2 August 2001, 22-3.

48 Kusuma Snitwongse, Thai foreign policy in the global age/ 201. See also, Syed
Serajul Islam, 'The Islamic independence movements in Patani of Thailand and
Mindanao of the Philippines/ Asian Survey 38(May 1998), 441-53.

49 Far Eastern Economic Review, 22 August 2002, 8; ibid, 27 September 2001, 21-2.


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Arne Kislenko

crisis, Thailand followed the prescriptions of the International

Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Malaysia, however, pre-
ferred to implement its own programme. Differing policies with
respect to the crisis illustrated more divergence on economic issues.
Whereas Thailand has consistently supported the development of a
free- trade zone in Southeast Asia under the auspices of the Asia Pacific
Economic Co-operation (APEC), Malaysia remains opposed. Mahatirs
government is particularly worried about the effect on its forestry
industry and deeply resents American domination of APEC.50 Bangkok is
also troubled by Malaysia's efforts to keep automobiles on the exclusion
list under ASEAN s free trade area plan to reduce tariffs. This hurts the
Thai automotive export market and protects Malaysian car manufac-
turing.51 Mahatir has also ruffled the Thais over the general direction of
ASEAN. At the 1996 meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the Thai government
proposed a resolution dubbed Vision 2020' calling upon each member
state to be an 'open society' by that date. Mahatir criticized the resolu-
tion for its western' bias and in the process implied that Thailand was
too deferential to the United States. Spearheaded by Malaysian opposi-
tion, the resolution failed, with only the Philippines supporting it.52
Mahatirs attitude and style have in fact earned him a dubious distinc-
tion in Thailand. Recently critics of Thaksin Shinawatra have described
his nationalist, anti-foreign, and authoritarian bluster as 'Mahatirism.'53
Thailand's relationships with larger powers in the past decade or so have,
on the whole, been much better than those with neighbouring states.
Vietnam is an excellent case in point. As noted above, Thailand's rap-
prochement with Hanoi was contingent upon Beijing's policy and the res-
olution of the Cambodian crisis. Once the Sino-Vietnamese detente began
and Vietnamese troops left Cambodia, Thai leaders were quick to seize the
initiative. The November 1992 visit to Vietnam of Prince Maha
Vajiralongkorn was the first ever by a member of the Thai royal family.
Alongside Thailand's emphasis on stimulating the economic development
of Indochina, such symbolism was important in de-emphasising the two

50 John Gershman, 'In focus: Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (apec),' policy brief
for Foreign Policy in Focus s(November 2000), Columbia International Affairs
Online, http://www.ciaonet.org
51 'Asia 2001 Yearbook/ Far Eastern Economic Review, 211.

52 Peter Eng, 'Transforming asean/ 51.

53 Michael J. Montesano, 'Thailand in 2000: shifting politics, dragging economy,

troubled border/ Asian Survey 42 (January-February 2002), 90-1.


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Thai foreign policy

countries' long military stand-off. After the Cambodian crisis was largely
resolved, Thailand and Vietnam enjoyed a flurry of diplomatic activity,
signing numerous economic agreements and dramatically increasing bilat-
eral trade.54 Economic and political reforms in Vietnam over the course of
the 1990s have helped further relations with Thailand, and encouraged
Thai investment. Hanoi's efforts to improve Vietnam's relations with other
countries also alleviated Thai concerns about security threats to regional
stability. In this regard, the enormous downsizing of the Vietnamese mili-
tary over the past fifteen years has been particularly important.55
Perhaps the greatest success for Thai foreign relations recently is
with China. Like Vietnam, China was very interested in Thailand's
efforts to develop Indochina economically during the 1990s. The reso-
lution of the Cambodian crisis and improved relations with Hanoi
eliminated Beijing's chief concerns in the region. Chinas ties to
Bangkok had been predicated on Cambodia since 1978, but the tran-
sition from a military and security convergence to a mutual economic
focus proved to be rather straightforward. Moreover, Thailand was a
faithful friend to Beijing after the Tiananmen Square incident in June
1989. The Thai government issued no response to the massacre of
Chinese students and in fact continued to pursue an open dialogue
with China. Chatichai Choonhavan was one of the first foreign leaders
to return to Beijing, visiting less than four months later.56 During the

54 Surin Maisrikrod, '"The peace dividend" in Southeast Asia: the political econo-
my of new Thai-Vietnamese relations/ Contemporary Southeast Asia 6(june 1994),
49-66. Since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 1976, Thailand and
Vietnam have signed 11 memoranda of understanding, six of them after 1991. Trade
between the two countries after 1991 was similarly brisk. The total value of bilateral
trade that year was 3.5 million Thai baht, only about us$i million. In 992, the total
value increased 234 per cent.

55 Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, 'Post-cold war us military expenditure in the
context of world spending trends/ policy brief for The Project on Defense
Alternatives, January 1997, Columbia International Affairs Online,
http://www.ciaonet.org. In 1986 Vietnam spent a record US$3.1 billion on its armed
forces. By the end of 1994, military spending had decreased by 85 per cent. Perhaps
surprisingly, military spending also dramatically decreased in China and North
Korea during this period. Combined, the three communist countries allocated US$62
billion in 1986, but just $58.7 billion in 1994. By contrast, Western -oriented Asian
nations, including Thailand, spent $67.5 billion in 1986 and increased their com-
bined total to $89.5 billion by 1994.

56 Yong Deng, 'Sino-Thai relations: from strategic co-operation to economic diplo-

macy/ Contemporary Southeast Asia i3(March 1992), 365. On Sino-Thai relations,
see Sukhumbhand Paribatra, From Enmity to Alignment: Thailand's Evolving
Relations with China (Bangkok: Institute of Security and International Studies,
Chulalongkorn University, 1987); and Anuson Chinvanno, Thailand's Policies
Towards China, 1949-1954 (London: Macmillan 1992).


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Arne Kislenko

1990s Chinas friendship with Thailand produced increased trade and

even led Beijing to step up the sale of conventional military equipment
to Bangkok. The relationship became so cosy that many analysts spoke
of a de facto alliance between the two; an extraordinary development
considering their nearly thirty years of bitter cold war tensions.
Co-operation between the two countries continues today in many
areas. In 1999, Beijing promised to reduce import tariffs on Thai
goods by 50 per cent to help cut Thailand's large trade deficit with
China and as part of its bid to join the World Trade Organization
(WTO). Thailand reciprocated by initiating further dialogue between
China and ASEAN, which Beijing has historically viewed with suspicion
but now seeks to influence.57 Trouble spots between the two countries
include Chinese policy on Taiwan, the occupation of Tibet, and
Beijing's claim to the disputed Spratley Islands. However, none of these
issues has been a major impediment. Thailand's consistent policy of
engagement with China is likely to continue indefinitely and has
already contributed to regional stability in Southeast Asia.
Japan is another former foe turned friend. Japanese investment was
a major contributor to Thailand's economic boom in the 1980s and
early 1990s.58 Even more important, from the Thai perspective, was
Japan's support after the 1997 financial crisis. Whereas the United
States sharply criticized Thailand's economic policies, Japan proposed
constructive ideas, such as the creation of an Asian monetary fund.
Moreover, in 1998 the Japanese government offered invaluable assis-
tance in securing for Thailand US$4 billion in aid through the IMF and
$8 billion in a trade insurance package.59 Thai relations with the United
States have, by way of contrast, been less spectacular in recent years. The
1997 crisis only highlighted nearly twenty years of slow but sure dis-
tancing between Bangkok and Washington, although there is not likely
to be a major falling out. Occasional difficulties over issues such as the
drug trade, copyright law, and the constructive engagement of Burma
or Vietnam have characterized the relationship since its heyday during

57 N. Ganesan, 'Asean's relations with major external powers,' Contemporary

Southeast Asia 22(August 2000), 267-78. See also, Kusuma Snitwongse, Thai for-
eign policy in the global age/ 199-201.

58 Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, Thailand's Boom and Bust (Chiang Mai:
Silkworm 1998), 33-7. See also, Surachai Sirikrai, Thai perceptions of China and
Japan/ Contemporary Southeast Asia i2(December 1990), 247-65.
59 Kusuma Snitwongse, Thai foreign policy in the global age/ 202.


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Thai foreign policy

the cold war, but so too have continued joint military co-operation and
narcotic interdiction efforts.60 On balance, then, United States-Thai
relations are notable for their consistency. However, as Thailand devel-
ops even greater autonomy in its foreign affairs and builds upon its
friendship with China, the relationship with the United States may go
through significant changes.
Part of the reason for Thailand s decreased foreign policy dependen-
cy on the American connection is the rehabilitation of ASEAN as a
diplomatic vehicle. Formed in 1967, ASEAN originally included just
five countries - Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and
Singapore. At the time, Thailand did not consider ASEAN a diplomatic
priority. However, with the withdrawal of United States power from
Southeast Asia in the mid- 1 970s, Thailand began to focus more on the
organization and its potential as a regional security forum. Since then
ASEAN has emerged as an important player in Southeast Asia, and
Thailand has become one of its leading members. Somewhat pre-
dictably, the Thais spearheaded ASEAN s condemnation of the 1978
Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and championed its role in helping
to broker the 1991-2 negotiations on Cambodia. Perhaps less pre-
dictably, Thailand was the leading advocate of broadening ASEAN's
membership to include all Southeast Asian nations.61 As discussed pre-
viously, Thailand's has been the leading voice in extending the number
of ASEAN dialogue partners, particularly China.
The past few years have definitely strained ASEAN s effectiveness as a
regional organization. The 1997 financial collapse of many member
states dealt a decisively difficult blow. ASEAN s critics point out that it
has done little to help remedy economic problems in Southeast Asia,
while defenders note the tremendous difficulty of dealing with the
wide range of opinions over what to do. ASEAN has also been divided
on the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of member

6o Leszek Buszynski, 'Thailand's foreign policy/ 732-4. 'Cobra Gold' exercises are
held annually in Thailand between the two countries' armed forces. It is interesting
to note that in a show of autonomy the Thai government refused a request by the
United States military to conduct over-flights in gathering intelligence on Cambodia
in 1992.

61 Peter Eng, 'Transforming asean,' 51. Asean now has ten members - Brunei joined in
1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Burma in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999 encom-
passing nearly 500 million people over 4.5 million square kilometres and a com-
bined gross domestic product (gdp) of US$737 billion. See also, Economist, 12
February 2000, 3-4.


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Arne Kislenko

states. In 1 996, with Burma clearly in mind, Thailand tried to shift the
emphasis to 'flexible engagement/ implying that although non-inter-
ference remained ASEAN s official policy, member states could take their
own initiative. Under pressure from Malaysia and Indonesia, the Thai
proposal was dropped, and ASEAN members eventually decided on
'enhanced interaction' as a solution.62
Despite these problems, ASEAN remains an integral part of interna-
tional relations in Southeast Asia. There is renewed faith amongst its
members as the economic and political climate of the region slowly
improves. ASEAN has also proven that it is still relevant by stimulating
discussion on a regional free trade zone and by orchestrating the meet-
ing between the United States secretary of state, Colin Powell, and
North Koreas foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun, in the summer of
2002.63 Critical to ASEAN s resurgence is Washington's fear that Chinese
influence in ASEAN will grow. A strategic re-evaluation of American for-
eign policy in this respect would likely enhance ASEAN s credibility.
Moreover, ASEAN is very likely to remain a major component of Thai
foreign policy in the years to come, particularly if it facilitates good
relations with both China and the United States.
Alongside its emphasis on ASEAN, Thailand has attempted to expand
its participation in other international organizations. In 1999, the
Thai military contributed 1500 troops - the largest number next to
Australia - to help stabilize East Timor prior to the arrival of United
Nations peacekeepers. A Thai major-general was second in command
of overall forces. Also in 1999, the deputy prime minister of Thailand,
Supachai Panitchpakdi, was named co-director general of the WTO.64
The events of 1 1 September 2001 affected Thailand's external relations
by focusing attention on both the country's Muslim insurgency and its
notoriously lax immigration procedures. Bangkok is a well-established
centre of international organized crime and terrorist activity. In the
past, Thai authorities have been disinterested in clamping down,

62 Peter Eng, 'Transforming asean,' 54; Tobias Nischalke, 'Does asean measure up?
Post-cold war diplomacy and the idea of regional community/ Pacific Review
15(2002), 89-117; and Robin Ramcharan, 'Asean and non-interference: a principle
maintained/ Contemporary Southeast Asia 22(April 2000), 60-88.
63 Far Eastern Economic Review, 15 August 2002, 22. On asean's role in Asian-Pacific
security, see Sheldon W. Simon, 'Security prospects in Southeast Asia: collaborative
efforts and the asean Regional Forum/ Pacific Review 11(1998), 195-212.

64 'Asia Yearbook 2000/ Far Eastern Economic Review, 208.


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Thai foreign policy

which has earned them the ire of the United States, Britain, and other
Western countries interested in co-operative, global interdiction
against such groups. Recent revelations about Al-Qaeda affiliates oper-
ating in Thailand have helped change things. So too did a rash of police
killings in southern Thailand and the April 2001 bombings of Hat Yai
railway station and a hotel in Yala province.65 Under pressure from the
United States, Thailand will have to address its border security and
improve its intelligence gathering capabilities.
No discussion on the course of Thai foreign policy would be com-
plete without mention of bureaucratic and political factors that influ-
ence decision-making. One of the most important is the organization
and leadership of the foreign ministry. Historically, the diplomatic
corps in Thailand was subject to the king and, after the 1932 coup, to
the military, which dominated the country for nearly 60 years. There
were some brilliant foreign ministers, who certainly made their mark,
such as Prince Devawongse following World War I orThanat Khoman
during much of the cold war. However, for the most part foreign poli-
cy in the 20th century was the domain of royalty or military govern-
ments. During the 1980s this began to change. The foreign ministry
enjoyed considerable latitude and prominence in the formulation of
various policies, particularly during Chatichai s tenure as prime minis-
ter. During Chuan Leekpais time in office (1992-5, and 1997-2000),
the foreign ministry was considerably more restrained and conserva-
tive, but it retained some of its influence over policy initiatives.66
Perhaps most significant from a bureaucratic perspective is the fact that
between 1988 and 1997 there were eleven foreign ministers, a clear
illustration of Thailand's volatile domestic politics. Such rapid transi-
tions in leadership have decreased the prestige of the portfolio and made
policy formulation very difficult. The foreign ministry has also been
affected by demographic change. During Thailand's economic boom,
the foreign ministry found it difficult to attract new recruits, given its
comparatively modest financial incentives.67 In addtion, today an
increasing number of department staff are young and middle class and
tend to have different views on international affairs than their elders.

65 Far Eastern Economic Review, 27 September 2001, 22.

66 John Funston, 'Thai foreign policy: seeking influence,' Southeast Asian Affairs
67 Ibid.


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Arne Kislenko

The economic crisis that began in 1997 has also impinged on Thai
foreign policy. The collapse of the Thai 'boom' undermined attempts
to develop Indochina into a marketplace with Thailand at its centre. It
also diminished Thailand's capacity to remedy its problems with
neighbour states through financial inducements. However, from both
an economic and a foreign policy perspective, the Asian crisis may well
be overstated. One of the top academics in Thai studies, Duncan
McCargo, points out that 'crisis' is in fact normal for Thailand. From
1932 to 1992 military authoritarianism dominated the country. In the
transition to greater democracy, there were nine governments between
1991 and 2000. In total Thailand has had sixteen different constitu-
tions.68 All of these factors belie the contention that the events of 1997
were somehow cataclysmic. It is more likely that such crises will con-
tinue to accompany economic growth, political reform, and the devel-
opment of an increasingly pluralistic society.
In fact, the economic crisis may in some ways have had a positive
effect on Thailand and its foreign policy formulation. Prior to 1997,
decisions about foreign affairs were made without much consideration
for public sentiment. The crisis changed that by increasing public
awareness of and interest in a wide range of issues from the environ-
ment to human rights.69 Although recovering and maintaining eco-
nomic growth are still the most important determinants in Thai for-
eign policy, the spectrum of other influences is increasingly broad. This
change parallels the effects of political reform, which since the 1992
coup have undermined the military's control of government and, con-
sequently, the focus on defence and security issues.
Having just come to power in February 2001, it is too early to tell
how Thailand's current prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, will affect
the course of Thai foreign policy. He is clearly in favour of 'construc-
tive engagement' with Burma and is likely to develop the friendship
with Vietnam and China. As the country struggles to recover econom-
ically, Thaksin's background as Thailand's wealthiest tycoon is sure to

68 Duncan McCargo, 'Thailand: crisis or reform?' Asian Affairs 3i(June 2000), 131-7.
See also, Duncan McCargo, 'Security, development and political participation in
Thailand: alternative currencies of legitimacy,' Contemporary Southeast Asia
24(April 2002), 51-60.

69 Kusuma Snitwongse, 'Thai foreign policy in the global age,' 190-1. See also,
Barry K. Gills, 'The crisis of post-war east Asian capitalism: American power, democ-
racy and the vicissitudes of globalization,' Review of International Studies
26(2000), 381-403.


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Thai foreign policy

have an impact on Thai diplomacy. He has already shown interest in

resuming early initiatives with respect to economic development in
Indochina, and his domestic leadership seems to be focused on a vig-
orous 'corporate strategy' for the country and the region, with himself
as chairman of the board.70 However, he has also demonstrated notice-
able nationalistic and anti-foreign sentiments. He rejected IMF and
World Bank prescriptions for Thailand's economic recovery and
scorned Western criticisms. Most ominous perhaps is his evident dis-
dain for the political and economic reforms initiated under Chuan
Leekpai. He is dismissive of new regulatory organizations designed to
combat election fraud and government corruption, and he recently
tried to curb the media by limiting press freedoms. Some Thais lament
that, contrary to the image he cultivated during the 2001 election cam-
paign as a young 'new age' reformer, Thaksin is instead 'a dictator in
civilian clothes.'71

It is clear, however, that notwithstanding its current economic

malaise Thailand will continue to be a principal player in the security
and stability of Southeast Asia. With economic recovery, it is very like-
ly that Thai foreign policy will renew the initiatives of the early 1990s
and focus on both the economic development of Indochina and
regional integration through multilateral forums like ASEAN. It is also
quite probable that Thailand will maintain and enhance its position as
China's 'emissary' in Southeast Asia. Whatever new winds blow in the
region, Thailand will undoubtedly try to accommodate them. With an
emphasis on flexibility, and a remarkable history of continuity, Thai
foreign policy - like the bamboo - faces the 21st century with solid

70 Far Eastern Economic Review, 1 August 2002, 36-8.

71 'Asia 2002 Yearbook/ Far Eastern Economic Review, 208. Thaksin and his newly
created Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai) party won the January 2001 elections with
70 per cent public approval, even though he was already under indictment by the
National Counter-Corruption Commission for allegedly not disclosing all his person-
al assets. With victory in hand, but still facing the Constitutional Court's resolution
on the charges, Thaksin publicly berated the Commission and a host of political
reforms. In August 2001, the Court narrowly ruled in Thaksin's favour amidst
rumours of his tampering with the process. Such allegations, along with continuing
economic lethargy, have significantly reduced his popularity. Moreover, in a rare
public statement on politics by the revered king in December 2001, Thaksin was
chastised for his 'double standards and egoism/ A poll taken shortly thereafter
showed Thaksin's popular support at just 48 per cent. See also William F. Case,
Thai democracy, 2001/ Asian Survey 41 (May 2001), 525-37.


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