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Media Conference Call: Unrest in Thailand

Speaker: Joshua Kurlantzick, Fellow for Southeast Asia, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer on Asia, CFR.org
April 16, 2010
Council on Foreign Relations

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JAYSHREE BAJORIA: Good afternoon, everyone. And welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations conference call to discuss the recent events and growing unrest in Thailand.

I am Jayshree Bajoria, the staff writer on Asia for cfr.org, the council's website. And I'm delighted to moderate this call with Joshua Kurlantzick, who is our fellow for Southeast Asia. Josh has also just written an excellent ExBrief (sp) -- (inaudible). The country remains under a state of emergency. And aggressive action by the army last Saturday resulted in the worst political violence in two decades, with 23 protestors and soldiers killed.

The recent events are the latest in an ongoing political crisis the country has been facing for five years now. Josh, you've been there recently. Why don't we start with you telling us what's the situation on the ground. And what do you likely see happening in the near future?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: Okay. Thanks. And thanks, everyone, for showing up and listening.

Well, I think several things. First of all, this wave of unrest is just the latest going back to 2006 and before 2006, when you know that Thaksin was deposed. And I think that this isn't actually, I think, the culmination, because although this was the worst actual violence, we've seen no resolution. You know, in previous times in Thailand, like in 1992, there was violence, but then there was some resolution.

We've seen no resolution now, so as a result, I don't think that the situation has actually improved in any way. It's calmed down briefly, partly because it's New Year in Thailand, but there's been no resolution. So you're likely to see even more unrest, or possibly more violence.

But I wanted to say a couple of things. First of all, I think that the situation is perhaps perceived a little bit too simplistically and -- which is just sort of a class divide: I mean, the Red Shirts, the -- mostly the rural poor; and the Bangkok elites. And I think actually it's a number of different divides that are all happening at once, unfortunately. You have -- you do have the class divide. You have the regional divide, in which people from the north and northeast are sort of pit against Bangkok and people from Bangkok and the south, who've traditionally voted with the Democrat Party.

You have the class divide, but you also have, I think, a divide just between people who are -- traditionally have been part of the institutions -- the monarchy, the bureaucracy, the army -- and people who have increasingly felt alienated from those institutions. And that's not necessarily only along wealth lines. The Red Shirts do have some wealthy supporters, they do have some middle-class business people -- I mean, obviously (attacking themselves ?) -- no lack of money. But they tend to be people who've just felt alienated from the way Thailand has been run for 70 years. And you see that coming out increasingly.

The problem I think that you have, that I wrote about in the expert brief is that a lot of the ways that you could potentially resolve some of this tension -- there's no real opportunity for them. So for one is, obviously, you can't have any debate about the monarchy, which is one of the key pillars, institutions that people are maybe becoming somewhat alienated from. You can't have any debate about that. That's illegal.

You can't really have any -- the Red Shirts can't really do anything about the army, about the military, because the military -- although it's not illegal to talk about them, they exist as an institution outside of civilian control, in some ways, in Thailand.

And the third is the way the political system is run. As long as the elites in Bangkok basically are unwilling to realize that in a real democracy, they would have to give up some degree of power -- because they don't actually form the majority of the country -- you're never going to have any resolution.

And I can't say that I'm particularly optimistic in the near term. And of course overriding all of this is just this sort of intense fear that -- when I lived in Thailand 10 years ago, people would never talk about this.

But now they talk about it openly, because the king is quite elderly and ailing, this fear that things are going to get much worse or that chaos is going to erupt when he passes away, because he's been sort of the sole mediating institution preventing violence and bloodshed in the past.

And again I don't see any near-term solution to that either. So I mean, I see a quite bleak near-term outcome, I'm afraid. But I'd like to open it up and hear people's questions.

BAJORIA: Thank you so much, Josh, for that overview. I'll start with asking, you know, the first question.

The one thing that's probably, you know, the utmost in everyone's mind, do we -- are we going to see another military coup, another military takeover? Or do you think, you know, a unity government with all the different parties, including supporters of the pro-Thaksin party, that some people have started talking about.

Is that going to be a possibility?

KURLANTZICK: I don't think a unity government is really -- although people talk about it, I don't think that's a feasible situation.

In the past what had happened during -- when there was violence, 1992 -- (inaudible) -- there would be a quote-unquote "caretaker government" afterwards. But the caretaker would always be someone appointed from the sort of royalist elite traditionally, like in 1992 with Anand Panyarachun, like a very typical -- a very good guy but a very typical sort of Bangkok elite.

I just honestly don't think that -- Thailand has entered a totally different political era in which the people who are the Red Shirts and the sort of traditional Bangkok elites, they don't see eye to eye almost on anything. I don't see -- you could have a unity government in that people would all sort of be together for a short while, but not a unity government in that they would be working together for some common ideal.

The second is that I think that as long as the current commander in chief of the army is the current commander in chief, a military coup is probably unlikely. He is known as relatively reticent to use force, but his deputy I think is considered much more hardline, and it's much more likely.

Right now I think what's happened is that the military you saw in 2006 when they actually had a coup, although briefly after it, they got some applause from Bangkokians, they really managed the country quite poorly after that. They managed the economy poorly. They really just couldn't handle a 21st-century economy and civil society. And I think that they're smart and realize that, so that their way that they wield their power now is behind the scenes without stepping forward.

But, I mean, I think if this -- if this goes on for another month, two months, and there is no royal intervention, which is probably likely, that there'll be no royal intervention, I think -- (audio break) -- have a much higher likelihood that somehow they're going to have to clear the Red Shirt protesters out, and they're also embarrassed by the way that they were attacked. I think that probably, among harder-line -- (audio break) -- probably got -- I don't know what the right word is, but just sort of (incent ?) them in that they were embarrassed by a group of sort of protesters. And -- but I don't think a military coup is likely in the next few weeks.

BAJORIA: Another important piece in this story, and as you've pointed out, is the question about the future of the monarchy. And, like you said, it's still almost a taboo subject, even illegal.

But this week the foreign minister of Thailand was speaking to a seminar in Washington, broke the taboo and called for an open discussion. Do you see that a change is possible? Do you see a possibility for an open discussion on this issue?

KURLANTZICK: No. I mean, I think you can speculate about a lot of different reasons why (Kasit ?) said that, but I mean, if the Democrat Party is not going to be in power much longer, he's not going to have a job much longer. So it could be that he truly believes that and he sort of was able to say that because he is a lame duck. But immediately after he said that, Panitan, the government spokesman, said the government has no comment on this; it's his personal opinion.

And I think actually what's likely to happen, as the king moves closer, I would say, to passing away and a transition happens, you're likely to see even less discussion in the near term, because royalists will want to sort of crack down on any discussion. Because now the discussion, although it's filtered, is at least sort of, in the royalists' view, still in their favor, because the king is truly a revered figure.

When the crown prince becomes the king, we'll have a much different situation. Actually I think debate will be even more controlled. There could even be -- I mean, it depends on what happens, but there could even be a sort of long-term period of emergency in which they call for a long period of mourning and also a sort of similar period of emergency during that.

So I don't think so in the near term. I think that if you have a transition and the next ruler reigns poorly and does not enjoy the support of Thais, then you probably in the long term will have some rethinking -- (inaudible) -- constitutional.

BAJORIA: So with that, let me turn it over to question and answer from our audience. And we'll give you instructions for how to do that right now.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

At this time, the floor is open for questions. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Chandrakant Pancholi, with Overseas India Weekly.

QUESTIONER: Well, hi.

KURLANTZICK: Hi.

QUESTIONER: Joshua, can you give me 10 seconds more? Because there are so many pieces on this Thailand chessboard. Can you tell us about the relationship between the king and the army? I mean, is there a control, some type of, or is there a strong civilian control?

And secondly, isn't this basically a(n) economic struggle between those people who have migrated to the cities, looking for a job and then better life? And wouldn't this party -- generally will win, if there is a next election? And how is the Buddhism affecting -- the third piece -- the other parties? Right, both parties?

And fourth, what happens when the king dies? Do we have a succession there? And lastly, about this Muslim minority in southern provinces, (liberal ?) ones, do they have a(n) Indonesian connection? It is interrelated, or it is just separate, individual movement?

KURLANTZICK: Okay. Well -- (laughs) -- that's a lot, so maybe I'll try to -- the insurgency in southern Thailand is a very serious problem in which thousands of people have been killed, going back to 2000, 2001. And it's a -- it's a sort of uncovered, in the West, amount -- violence that goes almost uncovered. But it doesn't have a lot to do with the -- what's going on in Bangkok now.

There's a lot of theories about what's going on in southern Thailand, but it's a separate -- it's a largely separate issue.

There is a succession. When the king passes away, he has appointed successor the crown prince. And things have been in the works for years making sure that the crown prince sort of ascends to a lot of duties, then he'll become the king. The problem is that he's not well liked by most Thais, although, you know, that's not printed in the newspaper. But the problem is not that he was -- he's not going to become the king, but just that he's not going to enjoy the reverence of the current king.

And so the current king, although he's in theory a constitutional monarch like the queen of England, he isn't really. He exerts power through all sorts of different ways, through his advisers, through royal instructions, through mediating when there's been violence. And there's no way his son's going to be able to do those things, because those things are built on a lifetime of true reverence for the current king.

About the army, the army is not under civilian control in the way that you would think about it in a truly democratic country in which the military is truly just an institution of -- institution controlled by the government. It's not like India or the United States or France. The military has a significantly larger role, and the military -- in this case, what the military says about who they're going to support, which party they're going to support or when they're going to have or withdraw power behind opposite -- you would never see anything like that in India or in the United States, right? I mean, the Indian military doesn't weigh in on who it wants to be prime minister. So you have a much different situation.

In terms of the relationship with the -- with the crown, between the military, there's a close relationship. It's not like the king himself is giving orders.

In fact, Queen Sirikit is known to be actually more involved with the military. But the crown has traditionally had a close relationship.

The privy council, which advises the king, traditionally is made up of former army advisers, and they tend to very much favor the military. You saw after these recent protests there were several army officers killed, and the queen and the crown prince made a very big show of going to the funeral and performing Buddhist rites over the body of one of the officers, which is a way of sort of saying that they supported and sort of blessed the operations the army had taken.

In terms of economic grievances, like I said, it's a factor, it's a big factor; it's not the only factor. And yes, I think that if there was another election out today, a party that represents basically the same interests as Thaksin and sort of the same interests as the Red Shirts would win, if you had a free election and there was no fooling around.

That doesn't mean that they would be able to govern, because you still need the support of the business community, the military, the monarchy. But I think if you just had an election, yes, they would win.

QUESTIONER: How Buddhism affects all these things, the religion?

KURLANTZICK: I'm sorry, say that again?

QUESTIONER: How does religion, Buddhism, affect all the social and economic fabric?

KURLANTZICK: I mean, I'm not an expert on Buddhism, but I would just say that, you know, one of the things that's interesting about the current unrest is that it's very much a break from Thai tradition in a lot of ways, not necessarily just about Buddhism, but that Thailand traditionally -- a very important value in society is non-confrontation, you know. So that when I lived there, it would be very hard to tell, necessarily, what people were thinking, because people don't confront you openly with their anger.

And that was often the way a lot of disputes were handled. And you see just a much more confrontational style now. And that's partly, I think, because a lot of poor people feel like the idea of non-confrontation was basically just used as kind of a fig leaf to perpetuate the rule of elites. Elites rule and they sort of -- and those who do not share in the wealth and power go along with it and don't confront it, because that's sort of their way in life. And I think that's a really dramatic change now.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

KURLANTZICK: Sure.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Mike Billington, with the Executive Intelligence Review.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thank you. In regard to the monarchy, you made reference to the fact that in Thailand now the extreme reverence for the king, which you read in all the foreign press, is less and less applicable; that more and more people are expressing their concern about the monarchy, because it's seen as being responsible, through the Privy Council, in these coups and in sustaining this very Anglophile government.

My sense of the last week, which I'd like your comment on, is that the decision by the electoral commission, which is appointed by the king and was used to bring down Thaksin, some of his followers, government -- and then also, the Kasit statement -- it seems to me that there is a panic amongst the monarchy -- probably, also in London -- that this rage against this puppet government and so forth will turn against the monarchy itself; and that the monarchy has decided to throw the baby to the wolves -- just to somewhat, you know, avoid a Louis XVI situation.

And that -- I'm not sure this is going to work because, as you've pointed out a couple of times now, the situation is very different. The crown prince is known to be in touch with Thaksin and so forth.

So I'd like your comments on that whole threat to the monarchy and the possibility of something very sudden like that taking place right now.

KURLANTZICK: Well, I think that there are some interesting points there, but that's a little overstated. The reverence for the king is real. I think the discussion of the monarchy as an institution is more about concern about what happens when the king passes from the scene. I think that in anyone's public career, people do weigh up the positives and the negatives; and at this point if you had to ask most Thai people truly who know about it, the king's positives over time would strongly outweigh any negatives. The concern is more about what happens when he passes from the scene.

And if there is any fear, the fear is because he has been unwell for a long time and because the crown prince -- there's concerns about the crown prince, and also just because over the time as the king has served as sort of the mediating institution when there's been problems, Thailand as a result hasn't developed other mediating institutions, like a real supreme court or just really anyone else that can mediate between the dispute. So that is a concern.

I think that -- like I said, I think Kasit was off the reservation. And I really don't know -- I don't know the man. I've met him once or twice. I don't know why he said that. But more power to him for saying it, but I don't think that was any part of any plan, honestly.

In terms of Britain, I mean I think that -- I'm sure that like any other Western democracy, there's concerns about unrest in Thailand, but I don't think that Britain has any particular interests. I mean, the largest investor in Thailand is Japan, and the United States is the largest military partner, and probably the largest future partner is China. Britain's interests are minuscule. So I don't think that's a major factor.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question will come with Shaun Tandon with AFP.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for doing the call.

I wanted to ask you -- I guess this follows up a little bit on what you were just talking about -- about the implications for U.S. foreign policy of what's going on in Thailand.

I mean, Thailand of course is historically, you know, the oldest ally of the U.S. and Asia, as is often said. I mean, with all this instability, are there real concerns for the U.S. in terms of what it can do in Southeast Asia?

And taking that a step ahead, I mean, what could the U.S. really do to help -- to help sort these things out? I mean, could the U.S. play some sort of role as a mediator? Or would it need to do that very quietly, if it wants to?

KURLANTZICK: Well, I think there are definitely concerns certainly. I mean, I think that you have a number of different things going on, all of which would be concerning.

Again though I mean, although this last weekend was bad, it didn't come out of nowhere. So people have been thinking about this since 2005-2006, right, so the concern is there. It's getting greater. But the concern has been there for several years.

And actually since the violence in southern Thailand, which is not connected but is a destabilizing factor, has been going on for 10 years, the concern has been going on for some significant time.

And I think that you see that U.S. policy has over the last five or six years -- although not happy with the situation in Thailand, has compensated in some ways.

You've seen a reinvigoration of the relationship with the Philippines, which is a treaty ally also. You've seen an even greater relationship with Singapore. Singapore is not a treaty ally. But in reality, they're the closest ally of the United States in Southeast Asia.

So the U.S. has other options but, that said, obviously, no one wants this level of unrest.

And what I wrote about in the brief, also, is that I do think the U.S. made a major mistake in 2006, in which we essentially condoned the coup. I mean, officially, the United States condemned it, but there was no real action of serious consequence taken against the Thais: didn't cancel Cobra Gold, the joint military exercises; didn't do anything else.

And I don't think that will happen again, and I hope it wouldn't. But I don't think it will because -- just partly because the military really botched things so poorly after that. And secondly, because I do think that there is a different frame of mind now in which the United States is looking at this more in the way of, since Thaksin is not on the scene any more -- and before, it was sort of viewed as, well, Thaksin, though elected, was really disruptive to the rule of law; maybe a coup that led to a democratic government might not be the worst thing -- that's not my view, but -- now and since Thaksin hasn't been there for almost five years now, and you just have people raising issues of equity, income inequality, power, et cetera, and it's not about this guy who's corrupting the rule of law, or not -- it's much harder, I think, to justify why there would be a coup. So I don't think you'll see any justification of that.

The U.S. playing a mediating role? I don't think that's particularly likely. I mean, I think there is a role to play for the U.S. by encouraging our friends in Thailand, particularly among elites, to realize that the political calculus is changing and that they can no longer sort of act the way that they have. But in terms of a mediating role, I don't think that's super-likely, because I think there's probably some degree of inherent distrust among the electorate about the United States. And the U.S. has always played a certain role in Thailand. It's never really been in -- it's always been sort of on the side of the traditional institutions, so there would be probably some degree of suspicion of a mediator.

And I think if you actually were going to have some sort of more -- some sort of mediation, it would be more likely to come from someone like Indonesia or the other ASEAN countries.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Do you mind if I just follow up briefly on that?

KURLANTZICK: Yeah, sure.

QUESTIONER: The -- just wanted -- in terms of the orientation of -- I mean, obviously this is very much a domestic issue, you know, with the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts and -- it's very much a domestic issue. But in terms of foreign policy views, if any, that they would have -- I mean, some say that, you know, this is all domestic and that, you know, neither of them is strictly anti-U.S. or anti-foreign or anything. I mean, is that an assessment you would agree with? Or do you think that there could be -- (inaudible) -- is very friendly with the U.S., with --

KURLANTZICK: I think that -- are the Red Shirts protesting because there is an anti-foreign element, or whether they have anti- foreign elements but those are -- I think --

QUESTIONER: The latter. I mean, is --

KURLANTZICK: It probably -- I mean, I spent a lot of time in Chiang Mai last time I was there, which is the traditional heartland of Thaksin -- actually, I stayed in Thaksin's hometown, just by chance. I mean, I think that Thaksin didn't have any antipathy towards the West. (Chuckles.)

But I think that probably, yes, if you took a poll of the Red Shirts, there is more antipathy towards the West than there would be among Bangkok elites. But that isn't the reason that they're angry. I mean, I think there is some degree of anger in that globalization generally has not benefited Thailand very equally, and that Thailand's income inequality has skewed even more widely.

It's -- but you don't see -- I mean, it's -- there have been times in the past when people protest in Thailand about the U.S., about -- there have been protests about the licensing of drugs for HIV, about trade deals, et cetera. But that's not really part of this protest. But like I said, that doesn't mean that the people protesting don't have some -- probably have some anti-Western views.

QUESTIONER: Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question will come from Dave Hatcher.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Joshua, thank you very much. My bona fides go back to 1972, and I was on the ground in '73 and '76 and '81, and two weeks ago in Rai Fasong (sp). I'm out of the country now. But it's my -- it's my belief that the government has to disperse the Red Shirts. They have to get them out of town, and they cannot do that peacefully unless they -- unless they in quiet confidence, in secret confidence, Abhisit and the powers that be convince each other that they will have to agree to elections on a shorter timeline than Abhisit did a week ago in saying nine months or so.

If they cannot get the Red Shirts out of town, I just see continued problems. And obviously if they even want to try and come down harder than they did last Saturday, it's going to create even more problems, because you've got a feckless police force and a largely undependable army.

Just want to get your comments.

KURLANTZICK: Well, I mean, I agree with the first in general. I mean, I think right -- one of the traditional definitions of a state of -- of a stable state is that you have to have -- the state has to have a monopoly on the use of force and violence, and if you have people on the street who are threatening that monopoly, it shows a weakness of the state and the government, and that's certainly true.

I mean, I -- there are a number of problems, though, and that -- one is that they didn't do anything when the sort of the pro-elite Yellow Shirts protested and shut down the airport, which was really destabilizing.

QUESTIONER: Correct.

KURLANTZICK: So when they do anything, it's always -- even Kasit himself, who's the foreign minister now, he was in the Yellow Shirt protest, and he was -- (chuckling) -- he thought it was a great idea.

(Chuckles.) So in the -- so it's a problem for them.

But I do -- yes, I agree that you can't, as a government, allow people to shut down your international airport or to just shut down the center of town indefinitely. Some of the problem -- I mean there are a lot of problems, but one of the problems is that you probably have a fair amount of people in the police and some in the army who are sympathetic to the protests, so they have conflicted views, certainly in -- definitely in the police. You don't have really good command and instructions. And obviously they were really unprepared last weekend.

So, you know, I think that the idea of, well, you have to clear these people out in order to, you know, restore stability in Bangkok is in theory true. But it would be one thing to say, okay, we have to clear them out and this is the Netherlands and we're going to send in the Dutch police, who are really well trained in crowd control and know how to use non-lethal force and don't have any problems communicating, or the Japanese police. But the problem is that the Thai police and military don't, and so any time you have a major operation, you run into really serious risks of violence or just accidents or brutality, and so you have to consider that any time you do anything.

I really don't think that it's likely that they're going to wind up with an election in nine months. I mean, I think if this goes on, they're going to wind up with an election sooner, and the military might put pressure on, obviously, to leave and wind up with an election much sooner. Nine months is -- seems really unlikely to me at this point.

QUESTIONER: Yes, that's basically what I thought. They just have to do things faster to get the Red Shirts to willingly disperse, and follow up with some sort of a quicker timetable. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you. (Gives queuing reminders.)

Our next question will come from Mike Billington, with Executive Intelligence Review.

QUESTIONER: I guess there weren't others, because I did ask before. But I wanted to see if you had any thoughts on reports that the -- that the black-shirted people who were on the Red Shirts' side, who were reported to have fired grenades and guns at the soldiers, may have come from the Pak Thong Chai Old Badger (sp) unit -- (inaudible) -- crowd, or if you have any other intelligence on how that existed, if it existed, and the impact of that on the army, having this kind of, you know, shooting conflict.

KURLANTZICK: I mean, I have no idea where they come from. I think the impact's pretty disastrous because it showed, one, a total lack of intelligence -- I mean, it's disastrous in a lot of ways because it -- you can't have a nonviolent movement and sort of try to gain the moral high ground, and then be shooting at the army. So that's disastrous for the Red Shirts.

It's disastrous for the army in that they just had total lack of intelligence and coordination. And I think they're probably worried that, you know, information about their plans leaks out through soldiers who are sympathetic to the Red Shirts. That's including high-ranking people. That's a major concern. But in terms of where the people came from, I have no idea, but I think this was disastrous --

QUESTIONER: But do you think this -- do you think that was from the Red Shirts? If I understand, the Red Shirts had also basically thrown Koti (sp) out of the movement long before this confrontation.

KURLANTZICK: Well, but there are other people who are, you know, interested in the use of force. I'm just saying that it's disastrous for everyone in that -- you know, it would be like if -- if you can think about this in any other context, if you know, you were leading a peaceful march for civil rights, and then you shot at the police; or you're leading a peaceful march for the emancipation of India from Britain, and then you shot at the colonial authorities -- it just undermines your message.

Whether or not you actually control the people or not, it does undermine your message.

At the same time, yeah, it shows terrible, terrible planning by the army and terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible ability to think and respond on your feet. And that's -- you know, that's a problem with the Thai army for a long time.

QUESTIONER: May I follow up on the earlier question I had?

KURLANTZICK: Okay.

QUESTIONER: You said that you thought the role of England wasn't relevant. But I mean, obviously you have the prime minister and the treasury ministry run by people who were, you know, trained -- born and raised and trained in the U.K.

You have the royal family extremely close to both the British and the Dutch and the Danish monarchies. And it's widely reported that the British ambassador in Bangkok has been meeting with -- (inaudible) -- on virtually a daily basis for months.

So I mean, I don't think you can just dismiss that as -- you know, because England has a small business interest that they're not very, very much involved in this monarchical issue.

Don't you agree?

KURLANTZICK: No, I don't agree.

I mean, I think that where someone went to school -- I mean, thousands and thousands and thousands of foreign officials and leaders have gone to school in the United States. Hamid Karzai spent a lot of time in the United States. Doesn't mean he seems to be that interested in pursuing the same strategy as the United States in Afghanistan.

I mean, a lot of people have gone to school in England. And my point was just that --

QUESTIONER: But what about the monarchy?

KURLANTZICK: There are a lot of things going on in England right now, including the government drowning in debt and an election coming up. I don't think that the future of Thailand is super high on their list.

And the fact that they meet with people, I mean, it would be hard for me to imagine that Abhisit hasn't spent a considerable amount of time with Japanese companies trying to reassure them that, you know, this doesn't mean that you should pull your investments out.

And the U.S. has always played a very major role there, and it would be very hard for me also to think that obviously it hasn't spent a lot of time with the Chinese ambassador and stuff. Yeah, I mean I think traditionally, if you go back to the '40s and '50s, Britain had a large role there, but not anything like that today.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we are holding for further questions. (Queuing reminder.)

Our next question will come from Chandrakant Pancholi.

QUESTIONER: There is an organization, Southeast Asian Nations. Are they just sitting on it, treating this as an internal matter, or are there -- there is some movement to advise the government and the parties there, from China to Singapore and Australia?

KURLANTZICK: I'm sorry, there was a little bit of delay. I didn't --

BAJORIA: I think he's asking about -- Josh, he's asking about the role of ASEAN, and if ASEAN is doing anything about this.

KURLANTZICK: Ah. I had a little delay there. I had a problem hearing that.

Yeah. I think that there's a lot of concern among the ASEANs, definitely. Abhisit wasn't able to go to the summit. And Thailand has been, along with Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, you know, a central partner (on the nations of ?) ASEAN. And I think from talking to some of the Singaporeans and Indonesians recently, I think their level of concern is very, very high, also because at the same time you have a lot of instability in other places in ASEAN. You know, the Philippines is in an election season, which is very unstable. Malaysia, there's a lot of instability in Malaysia. So it's very high.

I mean, I think on the one hand you do have some countries in ASEAN which probably in some ways benefit.

Certainly I think Vietnam in some ways benefits, because the more instability there is in a place like Thailand, countries that are competing with Thailand for investment -- like Vietnam for sure -- benefits, possibly. But at the same time, ASEAN as itself already is an organization which, you know, has trouble getting anything done at the best of times. And when one of the major members is consumed with itself, it makes things nearly impossible.

I think that you do have, though, in ASEAN, compared to a few years ago, Indonesia is a much more vigorous actor, because its own house is in better order. And I think that the Indonesians would like to play a larger role in general in helping resolve some of the conflicts in ASEAN countries. They would like to play a larger role in Burma; they would like to help in Thailand to some extent. But I think the ASEAN way has always been, no one -- no one interferes unless they're asked to, or no one even steps in and tries to mediate unless they're asked to. So no one's going to do anything until the Thais ask them.

But yeah, the level of concern is much -- is very high; I mean, much higher than you would have in the U.S. or Britain. And also, what happens in Thailand does have some spillover ramification, in that Thailand is -- Thailand's relations with Cambodia are not particularly good. I mean, they're a little bit better now. Thailand's relations with Burma are not particularly good. And those countries, in some ways, I think, sort of quietly relish some unrest in Thailand. But at the same time, it just adds to instability, which isn't good for longer-term Cambodia-Thai relations or Burma-Thai relations.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Shaun Tandon with AFP.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, thanks.

Just to follow up a little bit on what we were talking about earlier, the role of Thaksin. I'm just wondering if -- I mean, you mentioned that the unity government would be quite unlikely.

But could you see any type of scenario in which Thaksin would be allowed to come back? I mean, do you think -- do you think the hostility to him is so great that that's unfeasible for now?

KURLANTZICK: Yeah, I don't think it's impossible. I think one thing to remember about Thailand is that no one ever really leaves the political scene for real, for good. You've had many, many people leave in the past and come back.

Former dictators who were pushed out, after either coups or after street protests and royal interventions, often would come back. So no one really ever leaves the political scene. So, and Thaksin is not an old man.

So I think that it's certainly possible in some way that he could come back. I don't think he's coming back tomorrow. But I think actually though in some ways, the Red Shirts have benefitted from Thaksin not being there, because what's happened is they've enunciated and shown that they're a movement that has broader aims.

And although some Bangkok -- (inaudible) -- still portray them as sort of lackeys to Thaksin, because Thaksin isn't there -- because he's not as involved, he's not as visible a presence -- it's become harder to portray them as that.

And that has actually benefitted them I think, both in the coverage of them in the national press, in the way that they're viewed by Thais. But yeah, I don't think Thaksin has left the scene, because also he -- yes, there is one argument that Thaksin was just trying to get -- just trying to get his money back. But I just find that hard to believe.

I think that Thaksin did do -- had some programs that I think were successful. And he should rightly view them as having been successful. He had some significant downsides to his rule.

But certainly I think knowing the type of person he is, the way that he was forced out and left the country I'm sure is infuriating.

And he could have gone out into a very comfortable exile and never been seen again. He hasn't chosen to do that, so I think it's pretty unlikely that he's going to want to do that long term.

So, yeah, I don't think it's impossible that he comes back. Maybe not next year, but at some point. And if he came back, then, you know, we'd have to see what type of leader or what type of role he was going to play. I mean, we'll have second acts.

And one thing that Thaksin perhaps would need to learn is that even if he came back, or even if someone who was elected with a mandate of mostly the poor, he still would have to cater, in some ways, to the interests of the elite, just because you can't function as a ruler in Thailand otherwise. And that was something Thaksin would need to learn or anyone would need to learn. It's just the way it is there. It doesn't mean that the elites get to throw people out of power, but you need the support of them in order to function as a working society and an economy.

QUESTIONER: Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

We are currently holding for further questions.

BAJORIA: While we hold for, you know, questions, I was wondering, Josh, if I could just ask one quick one.

This is -- you know more about what's happening in Thailand's south, in the Malay Muslim provinces. In this, you know, tussle in Bangkok and the political turmoil there, I was just wondering -- there isn't much that I've seen on what's really going on in the insurgency there, what's the status of the insurgency. I was wondering if you could speak to that in any way.

KURLANTZICK: I can try, but people who know a lot more than I have tried and failed.

I mean, one of the problems with the insurgency is it's not a situation like with al Qaeda, when bin Laden truly was in charge, or the IRA or the Tamil Tigers, in which, you know, for all the bad things they did, you at least had an idea of what, specifically, they wanted.

Now, those -- what they had wanted could be, you know, impossible or crazy. But they were -- no one really knows what the people who've caused violence in southern Thailand really want. And partly that's because the insurgency is sort of perpetually shadowy, without any one leader, and unclear whether they have any specific political aim. Some people trace it to religious, some people say they want independence, greater autonomy. Part of the problem is that no one has any idea. I mean, really -- I mean, there have been real thorough investigations of this.

And it's now increasingly just been forgotten because of the unrest in Bangkok and central Thailand. And you just have a generation of sort of frustrated, angry young men in southern Thailand, but without any sort of clear, stated aims or organization. There's no one even really for the government to negotiate with. And that may be because they don't have any clear leadership. But it makes it just chaotic violence.

Because the government has tried to negotiate with some of the older leaders of the previous insurgencies in the '60s and '70s. And what they learned was that those people didn't really have that much connection to the young people who are involved now. And now they're sort of at a loss of what to do.

Beyond that, I really -- I mean, it's one of the least understood situations like that anywhere in Asia.

BAJORIA: Thank you, Josh.

Do we have any other questions at this point?

OPERATOR: I'm showing no further questions at this time.

BAJORIA: Thank you, Josh. Do you have any closing remarks?

KURLANTZICK: No; I -- thank everyone for listening in, and thank you.

BAJORIA: Thank you, everyone, for your questions and participating.

And Josh, thank you so much for your insightful account of what we can expect from these events in Thailand.

As a reminder, Josh has an expert brief that gets into many of the issues that were raised in today's call. It's titled "Reform, Not Revolution, for Thailand."

You can also check out CFR's Asia Unbound blog, featuring timely analysis from CFR's Asia experts, including Josh. That might be a useful resource.

Also, a reminder that the audio and transcript of this call will be available later on the council's website, www.cfr.org.

Thank you all for joining us today.

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