Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Thaksin and the Politics of Domestic and Regional Consolidation in Thailand

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Thaksin and the Politics of Domestic and Regional Consolidation in Thailand

Article excerpt

Introduction: Thai Politics and Foreign Policy (1988-2001)

Chatichai Choonhavan's election and subsequent appointment as Prime Minister of Thailand in August 1988 marked a major turning point in Thai domestic politics and foreign policy. Despite having a military background as a Major General, Chatichai secured his victory through the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party that he had founded. Chatichai also had a long association with the Thai Foreign Ministry and was a businessman when he was elected into office. His election effectively ended the direct involvement of the Thai military in domestic politics by displacing Prem Tinsulanond, his predecessor and an ex-army commander who had led the country from 1980-88. Beginning with Kriangsak Chomanan in 1979, army commanders "retired" from their military appointments before being "invited" by successful political parties to lead the government. This convenient arrangement allowed the military to retain unobtrusive control over the levers of government and placate rising social consciousness that favoured civilian democratic governance. For the political parties, it deflected the possibility of being forced out of office by coups, a recurrent feature of Thai politics in the 1970s. In fact, General Prem himself deflected two coup attempts in 1981 and 1986 through the active support of loyal military units and the monarchy. His continuing political influence may be measured by the fact that he is a senior Privy Councillor to the King and his interventions and pronouncements are often regarded as representative of the royal position on domestic matters.

Chatichai, together with a core group of advisers that included his son Kraisak Choonavan and M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, announced Thailand's Indochina Initiative after coming into office in 1988. The Initiative, which promised the transformation of Indochina's battlefields into marketplaces, was a major break in Thai foreign policy towards Vietnam, previously determined by the military and viewed in terms of a security threat to national sovereignty and regional order. (1) Traditionally, Thai security planners regarded the neutral status of Laos and Cambodia as essential to preventing the spread of revolutionary communism from Vietnam. The invasion and occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam from 1979 was viewed as a breach of Thai security interests. (2) Accordingly, Thailand sought a mutually beneficial security alignment with China from 1975 to 1988 after the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. (3) For China, the arrangement allowed it to check expanding Soviet influence through Vietnam and protect its client, the Khmer Rouge, that had been ousted from power by Vietnam in 1979. The policy also enabled China to utilize the anti-Vietnamese sentiment in ASEAN and seek a measure of strategic accommodation with the Association by attending to Thai security concerns. It was on the basis of this understanding that China launched its "punitive expedition" against Vietnam in 1980 and assisted Thailand with moral and material support in maintaining sanctuaries for Khmer Rouge guerillas on the Thai side of the Thai-Cambodian border. These guerillas made regular forays into Cambodia to engage Vietnamese occupation troops.

To deny Vietnam international recognition for its occupation government led by Heng Samrin, ASEAN successfully lobbied the United Nations to recognize the government of Democratic Kampuchea (read Khmer Rouge) in the first instance, and following that, a broadened coalition called the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) from 1982. The latter arrangement involved diluting the genocidal image of the Khmer Rouge by inducting the royalist forces of Norodom Sihanouk and the nationalist forces of Son Sann. (4)

In light of these developments throughout the 1980s and ASEAN's anti-Vietnamese policies at the diplomatic level, Thailand's Indochina Initiative was a revolutionary turnaround in foreign policy output. …

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