The Political Problem of Thailand

The military coup which suspended the Thai constitution occurred in September 2006 – which is eight months ago now. Since then Thailand has been run by a military junta that is operating under a state of emergency. Australia signed a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand in January 2005.

Prior to the neoconservative policy of pre-emption, the main international method for dealing with powerful nations operating outside of the liberal democratic tradition was through a mix of economic, political and military containment. So what has our policy toward Thailand been?

Alexander Downer in a speech last year said:

In my portfolio of foreign affairs, the over-riding imperative is of course the national interest, both in security and economic terms.

The key idea or organising principle, however, that guides this imperative and guides our policy is the concept that liberal markets and democracy are the best mechanisms for addressing global problems.

The Howard Government was willing to put some muscle behind that by displacing a dictatorship in Iraq and replacing it with what has become a non-functioning democracy, but I think that was more neoconservative fashion, than any deep-down conviction from the Howard Government.

I think they rate the ‘Great and Powerful Friends’ doctrine, and its continuance, more important than any deep ideological conviction that democracies should be established by military force.

After September 11th and the flood of US politicking on the issue, I suspect that the neoconservative fashion was adopted in Australia predominantly for electoral advantage.

However that fashion did extend to East Timor, and the ASPI’s “Our Failing Neighbour” report led to a mission into the Solomons a week later. It should be noted, that neither of these were done by military force; Australia’s diplomatic, military projection and public moral agreement were used to establish these missions without force.

It is fair to say that Australia’s commitment to democracy and liberal democratic institutions is political and moral; not military or coercive – with Iraq being the blunder that went against that policy.

Political and moral support, or displeasure, has its limits as well. For instance a small island on our front doorstep with little political power in relation to Australia, Fiji, has flipped between democracy and junta more times than flash Nick from Jindavik. We have been powerless to stop, or even retard that behaviour.

The impetus for democracy is an internal one. Freedom has to come from within, not from without, or be external force. Downer in another speech:

We need to support the spread of democracy and good governance in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia is an example of what democracy can offer – improved access to justice, a stronger, more open economy, a place where all citizens have a voice and the choice of how, when and where to practice their faith.

Unfortunately it has taken forty years to get to the point and required the Indonesians themselves to oust Suharto’s military dictatorship. We supported decolonialisation of Indonesia and the establishment of an Indonesian Republic, but this was subverted by Sukarno.

Then there is the economic problem; do you punish juntas, oligarchies and dictatorships with economic measures? The military containment of Hussein effectively crippled his war-making ability but it was not enough to remove his grip on political power. Sanctions against North Korea have meant that the countryside is in darkness while the dictator enjoys Cadillacs and Harley-Davidsons.

Yet the Tiger Nations, and now China, are built on the Japanese Development-State model which places an autocratic government in charge of an export driven economy. Singapore remains autocratic, Thailand is now a junta, Indonesia is a democracy, as is Taiwan and South Korea, while Japan remains a one-party state.

Economic liberalism gives the middle classes economic freedom, and enough political freedom that they are not impaired economically; but challenges to the state are still put down coercively.

Chile’s Pinochet is probably the best example of this, while adopting all the principles of free markets; domestically and politically, he was a tyrannical ogre.

Did Pinochet’s embrace of market liberalism lead to Chilean democracy? No. Chile was a democracy prior to Pinochet’s coup and dictatorship.

With the Tiger Nations, economic liberalism is not proving a guarantee either. It is fair to say that democratic forms must come from a domestic will to establish them, even in the face of force and coercion.

Which brings us back to a policy for Thailand and the FTA. Should we use it as a carrot or stick?

The three big economies in the region are Australia, Indonesia and Thailand – so dumping the FTA is not to be sniffed at. Given that the military and King of Thailand have a protectionist economic model called the “Sufficiency Economy” then it might be wise to keep the lever of the FTA there in keeping the Thai market open.

But Thailand is running in a state of emergency which means laws and treaties come under the junta’s whim. There is no guarantee the FTA will be honoured should it fail to fit the junta’s economic policies.

Thailand does not appear to be threatening to move outside of its borders. The emergency remains domestic, not international, so there is no need to round up support for military, economic and political containment.

I cannot find any news articles recently that mention both Thailand and Alexander Downer. Either; it isn’t newsworthy, the government doesn’t want to talk about it, or political relations between Australia and Thailand have frozen up.

It is probably a mix of all three, with the latter dominating.

So what to do with the FTA? Leaving it stand is probably the best policy. Australia should continue to pressure the junta to get around to establishing that democratic constitution they say they were going to with the reminder that Thailand had a functioning democratic constitution prior to their coup.

Given the King’s idea of economic self-sufficiency, the FTA probably cannot be used as a significant stick to beat the King or junta with. Then again, the Thai business lobby groups may have an interest in seeing it continue, and can pressure the junta over it.

Thailand remains a political problem at the moment, even if it is one off the news radar because of the chaos in Iraq. The junta cannot provide good governance because of their unconstitutional establishment. Their legitimacy is through force and their interest in democratic forms is selfish in nature.


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16 years ago

A good post – I'm glad to see this kind of thing on clubtroppo. One or two nits – first, I think military force played a fair role in Timor and the Solomons. I can guarantee you that the only thing that made our visit to the Solomons even possible was loaded guns. Second, the stuff about economic liberalism and democracy seems, to me, to kinda miss the point. Economic liberalism is about making people richer, making people richer makes them generally much better disposed towards strangers and provides the government with money, which are the foundations of welfarist redistribution, which is an underemphasised pillar of sustainable democratic government. Making people richer also has the effect (a little circularly) of increasing education and leisure which generally improves political participation. So there is probably no better foreign policy towards East Asia, the Subcontinent and South and most of Central America than trying to make them richer. The exceptions that spring to mind are the some Middle Eastern countries and any 'communist' countries such as the Bolivarian cock-up. But it is not necessarily an easy or short road and is substantially helped, I think, by appropriate international moral pressure, and by things like the WTO and FTAs, which, to a larger extent than might seem obvious, 'lock-in' certain pro-economic liberalism conditions. 

16 years ago

The King is the real leader of Thailand and always has been. Whether they have an elected prime minister or a military junta is irrelevant, because it is impossible for either to act against the will of the king.

He is a revered not unlike a god in Thailand. Dropping coins on the ground gets people upset because they have the King’s face on them.

Thaksin couldn’t do much as PM, which is presumably why he spent most of time stealing. Nothing else to do.

James Farrell
James Farrell
16 years ago

I throughly agree with Patrick’s opening sentence.

Nobody seems to be seriously worried about the Thai coup. Downer condemned it at the time, but this apparently only had token value. Educated Thais supported the coup, as far as I can tell. All this suggests that everyone understood that Thai governments survive on the sufferance of the military in any case. So there is no robust democracy to mourn. It is essentially the same setup as in other countries that are really ruled by a stable coalition of interest groups who negotiate behind the scenes. These include nominal democracies like Mexico and Colombia where a one-party system masquerades as a two-party system.