Two Obama administration officials have indicated that, despite Thailand’s current political crisis, they do not believe the military will intervene yet again, as it did in a bloodless coup in 2006. Both officials took part in a Washington discussion Tuesday on what is described as Thailand’s “once-in-a-century” struggle over its political future.
Amy Searight, deputy secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, acknowledges that Thailand is in the midst of a political crisis. Speaking Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Searight said the United States respects Thailand’s need to address its internal issues and find a path forward that works for the Thai people.
"But, in the midst of the crisis, DOD [Department of Defense] commends the Royal Thai Armed Forces’ restraint and professionalism that they’ve shown throughout," she said. "It really demonstrates the evolution of Thai civil-military relations in a positive direction."
Searight says the Thai military’s restraint is a strategic decision and has no interest in getting involved in running Thai politics again, after lessons learned in the wake of the 2006 coup.
"Are we confident that they will continue to be restrained and professional in all of this? We are reasonably confident in the sense that we - I mean, look, it’s a complex situation, and a lot of things can happen, and we’re monitoring - for that reason, we’re monitoring it closely and keeping in touch with our Thai counterparts," she said. "So, I don’t want to say we’re overconfident about any outcome. At this point in time, we don’t have reason to expect that the Thai military will change their current stance."
Searight says the United States stands with Thailand during this difficult period and says defense cooperation has never been better.
Thailand has a caretaker government after Yingluck Shinawatra was dismissed as prime minister last week, along with nine cabinet officials, by the Constitutional Court after being charged with abuse of power. The February 2 election outcome was annulled and the government says it hopes to press on with new elections July 20.
Scot Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, says Washington is not trying to impose a U.S. prescription to resolve the crisis. He calls Thailand a treaty ally, close friend and important trading partner and describes the relationship as a partnership and Thailand as critically important:
"We care about its political stability and its democracy, and we very much hope that it’s able to resolve these problems soon," he said. "And, we’ve stressed that, in our view, it’s important that the [political] problems - you know, we’re not saying this is how they should be resolved, but the manner in which to resolve it - it’s important that it be done constitutionally and democratically, and, of course, peacefully."
CSIS Southeast Asia expert Ernest Bower foresees continued conflict within Thailand.
"This is an existential, 100-year power struggle. What’s important is who has power when the [royal] succession takes place and when his majesty [King Bhumibol Adulyadej] passes from the scene and so, no matter what, the hopeful signs we’re seeing, no matter which prime minister gets ousted in the near term, this struggle is not over until the succession takes place," Bower said. "We don’t, and should not, expect resolution or stability in Thailand until that takes place, and when it takes place, Thailand is going to need friends, and we [United States] need to be there."
Last week, 86-year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a rare public appearance to mark the 64th anniversary of his coronation.
Bower says Washington has leverage in Thailand, including good relationships with the military, good contacts among Thais on all sides of the country’s political crisis and what he calls “incredibly good relations” within the Thai business community.
He says a strong and stable Thailand is important to the United States because of its contribution to the global and regional economy and its security relationship with Washington.