"We’re eager to see how this develops."
Unless you’ve been reading the foreign news sections of our dailies, you’re not likely to know that Thailand, among the five original members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Asean) and with whom we have longstanding friendly ties and economic cooperation, has been experiencing another round of political unrest this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Youth-led protests began in July to call for the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former junta leader, and for the drafting of a new Constitution. They later demanded reforms in the monarchy.
But what’s this we’ve been reading lately that while the street protests may be pro-democracy in essence, these are actually being fomented by politicians and even supported by Washington as part of the US conflict with China?
Let’s tackle the China angle first. Thailand’s largest and most important economic partner is China. China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in Thailand is said to be over 13 times larger than that of the United States. Apart from China’s huge FDI in Thailand, it is also Thailand’s largest trading partner. China also gives a big boost to Thailand’s tourism industry, with over 10 million Chinese tourists visiting Thailand every year, a number larger than that of tourists arriving in Thailand from all other Western nations combined.
China is also an increasingly important military partner of Thailand, which is buying more hardware to replace its aging inventory of US-made military equipment. Recent Thai purchases of Chinese military equipment include dozens of main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles as well as a jointly-developed guided missile system. The Thais are also planning to purchase their first modern submarines from China.
Thailand and China have also begun to conduct joint military exercises inside Thailand through the annual Thai-US “Cobra Gold” drills carried out since the 1980s.
Beyond trade and military ties, Thailand is a key partner of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A joint Thai-Chinese high speed rail line that will ultimately connect China, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia is already under construction.
All this appears to make Washington very worried about China’s inroads in Thailand and thus wants to wean it away from further cozying up to Beijing in the years ahead.
The new US Ambassador to Thailand, Michael DeSombre, said recently that Washington is now focusing attention on the South China Sea to make sure that Beijing does not illegally extend its control over the waterway. “That is an important area for Thailand because Thailand, although not a claimant in the South China Sea, depends upon the freedom of navigation for exports of about 80 percent of its GDP, so export and import flows through a naval situation that is not free and open would be problematic.”
It gets curiouser and curiouser. Joseph Thomas, chief editor of the Thailand-based geopolitical journal “The New Atlas” and contributor to the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook,” claims that within Thailand itself the US government currently funds opposition groups now carrying out protests aimed at removing the current Thai government from power.
The Thai opposition Future Forward Party (FFP) is part of the current street protests. Though disenfranchised for violations of Thai election laws, the party spokesperson said the disbanded party would resort to street mobilizations to pursue its single-minded agenda of ousting the ruling government.
Future Forward is led by a billionaire, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who has vowed to roll back Thai-Chinese relations and even threatened to replace Chinese-built high-speed rail projects already under construction.
Thailand’s opposition is openly backed by powerful foreign interests, particularly those in Washington. As the opposition attempts to secure power and help serve as a vector for Western special interests, the specter of a Western-sponsored “color revolution” increasingly looms over Thailand’s future.
Thailand is a key Southeast Asian nation, with the second largest economy in the Asean regional bloc. By disrupting Thailand’s political status quo, Washington apparently hopes to introduce block China’s regional and global rise.
While Future Forward’s de facto leader, Thanatorn, has clogged Bangkok’s downtown shopping district with followers to fight for “democracy” and “freedom,” what concerns observers are his open and deep ties to fellow billionaire, former Prime Minister and now fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin, like Thanathorn, is said to be backed by large foreign interests, particularly in Washington. For years he has reportedly secured the largest and most powerful lobbying firms in Washington to help shape Western media narratives favorably around his and his foreign sponsors’ agenda of tipping Thailand back West and away from its growing ties with Beijing.
Is the US backing political forces in Thailand so that these can one day assume power and serve as protector of US interests, or at the very least render Thailand divided and weakened to aid in and benefit from China’s regional and global rise? We’re eager to see what will happen from hereon.