The anti-government protests in Bangkok, which have drawn at least 100,000 red-shirted protestors from across rural Thailand, have attracted a lot of attention from the global media. This is in large part down to the gore: demonstrators have been donating litres of their blood to be poured on government buildings. The United States government, however, Thailand’s longtime foreign patron and ally, has said almost nothing about the red demonstrations. During a brief visit to the country shortly before the current protests, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell issued a bland statement:
We are urging restraint, and we want very much for issues that are passionate, and important political matters, to be dealt with in an appropriate way through the electoral process and through other democratic institutions.
American silence makes good sense. Four years ago, Washington was less hands-off – and paid for it. In 2006, protestors dressed in yellow and drawn mostly from the Bangkok elites gathered in the same streets where the red shirts now mass, pushing to oust Thaksin Shinawatra, the then prime minister. They got their wish: in September 2006, a military coup toppled Thaksin, who fled into exile, and many yellow shirts welcomed the army troops with flowers and smiles.
The US miscalculated badly. Washington issued a pro forma denunciation of the coup, but tacitly condoned the military takeover by its actions. The US did not suspend planned joint military exercises with the Thai armed forces, and privately sent signals to the army that the US would work closely with the military-appointed prime minister.
In private, many senior American officials argued that the US should tolerate the coup, because Thaksin, though elected, had autocratic tendencies, and because Thailand had weathered some 17 coups in the past, and the US historically had stood behind the traditional elites – the army, monarchy and Bangkok businesspeople.
That was a mistake. In the past, the US could back Thai elites because the majority of the population had no voice. Now, with the rural poor mobilised, the elites America has always worked with can’t keep the situation under control: if an election were called today, a proxy party for Thaksin would almost certainly win. Travelling through northern Thailand, Thaksin’s home base, last month, I found near-unanimous support for the red shirts, and polite but bitter disdain for the US, which perceived as always favouring Bangkok’s rulers.
To make matters worse, Bangkok’s elites have shown they can no longer even manage the country effectively. Shortly after the coup, the military-installed government so bungled its handling of the economy that investors fled the stock market in droves. In recent months, the current government, which has also not actually won an election, has been embarrassed by revelations that it paid a British company $21 million for useless bomb-detection equipment to use in Thailand’s war-torn southern provinces. No wonder Washington is keeping quiet.