Socio-Cultural Aspects of Thai and United States Military Relations

Article excerpt

[This article is a condensation of selected sections of a thesis on Thai-United States military relations in the post September 11, 2001, era completed as part of a Master's in Arts in Regional Studies at Chiang Mai University, Thailand. The research techniques used were personal interviews of Thai and United States military, diplomatic, and academic experts; participant-observer field research at several combined exercises; and document research. This article is the sole work of the author and does not portend to express the views of the DOD, Department of State, or any other USG organization.]

Similarities between Thai and United States Military Sub-Cultures

My overall observation of relations between Thai and American servicemen was that interpersonal relations and professional interoperability were good. Despite the fact that the U.S. and Thailand are located halfway around the world from each other, the two countries' cultures share several key aspects which help Americans and Thais connect on an easier level when compared to other countries.

First and foremost, both countries place a high value on freedom and independence. Both countries are known as the "land of the free." Thailand takes justified pride in being the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized. The United States is of course a former British colony but has for the bulk of modern history been regarded as the model for liberty, democracy, and the personal freedom of its citizens.

Both countries are also very accepting of foreigners and of other cultures. As the world's most ethnically diverse country, most Americans are comfortable around people of different backgrounds and can adjust to new customs and manners. Thailand is also very open to other cultures and customs, perhaps due in part to not having the collective psychological resentment towards foreigners that some other countries have who have been conquered by foreign powers. Also, a high percentage of Thai military leaders have studied in the United States or other western countries and so are familiar with western culture.

Thai and American cultures also share the characteristic of emphasizing friendliness. In contrast to some other cultures which are highly reserved or where individuals take a long amount of time to get to know each other before opening up, Thais and Americans are usually more outgoing and can warm up to each other quickly. I have had several experiences of working with other countries' military forces in which dealings with my counterparts were stilted and highly awkward. But in the bulk of the observations I have made on Thai and United States military exercises, the two sides seem to connect easily; and most dealings between them seem much more natural.

Differences between Thai and United States Military Sub-Cultures

Despite the similarities noted above, there are some key differences between Thai and United States cultures than can cause misunderstanding and friction. I will touch on three areas: social protocol, rank and respect of seniority, and political correctness.

Social Protocol

American culture does not place the same value on socialization as Thai culture does. United States military culture emphasizes a hard-driving work ethic. This attitude can be taken to an extreme, where anything other than mission accomplishment is regarded as extraneous. The social aspects of our military dealings with the Thais are seen as frivolous at best, and most often as a complete waste of time. "Why can't we just get down to business?" was the opinion of one United States officer I spoke with.

On a macro-level, this attitude can be seen in America's poor record on high level visits and social protocol. This record is quite frankly dismal, especially when compared to other nations currently engaging the Thai military. All too often, it appears to the Thais that American leaders are more interested in other countries in the region, stopping in Thailand only infrequently. …