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Washington’s Bangkok Blues

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
May 9, 2007

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Each spring for the past twenty-six years, the United States and Thailand have held joint military exercises known as Cobra Gold. But this May’s exercises in Thailand come during an unusual shaky patch in the longtime U.S.-Thai alliance. The Thai military overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006, pledging to hold democratic elections by December this year. Following the coup, Washington suspended $24 million in military aid and halted negotiations on a free trade agreement.

Further fraying ties, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) last month placed Thailand on its “priority watch list” for failing to clamp down on piracy and for overriding drug patents. Bangkok has allowed local companies to make generic versions of HIV/AIDS medications, drawing the ire of the U.S. pharmaceutical companies that created the drugs. The USTR’s decision to highlight Thailand as a country of primary concern could lead to trade sanctions. But the military junta, which began providing HIV antiretroviral drugs for free after the coup in a bid to bolster support, is unlikely to shift course on its drug policy, says a report by intelligence analysis website Stratfor.

In addition, despite the longtime military partnership, Thailand rebuffed a U.S. proposal in April to help train Thai soldiers to contain a separatist insurgency in the country’s southern Muslim provinces. Since January 2004, the conflict has killed more than two thousand people and shows little sign of abating, despite coup leaders taking a more conciliatory stance than did the Thaksin government. After interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont rejected (Australian) the U.S. training offer, he proposed a bill supporting an amnesty for insurgent sympathizers as “a message for peace.” Days later, insurgent attacks killed six people (Reuters). Chulanont’s amnesty offer came just after Human Rights Watch accused the government of worsening problems in the south by arming paramilitary forces and village defense volunteers there.

The military government also finds itself at times overshadowed by the ousted Thaksin, a telecommunications mogul whose mostly rural supporters elected him to the Thai premiership in 2001 following a campaign built on populist promises. Thaksin continues to make international headlines while in exile, whether for speculation (FT) that he could return to power or for a bid to buy the Manchester City soccer club. He was also recently elected (Bangkok Post) to head Thailand’s professional golf association, although the junta seeks to ban his reentry to the country.

Despite the troubled spell in relations, the U.S.-Thai military exercises are going forward as usual, and include participation by Japan, Indonesia, and Singapore. A Heritage Foundation report on U.S. relations with Southeast Asia calls the Cobra Gold exercises the “backbone of U.S. military cooperation in the region” and urges expanding operations to include other Asian nations.

Backgrounder: U.S. policy in Asia l CRS report (PDF) on U.S.-Thai relations

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