from Asia Unbound

The U.S. Response to Thailand’s Unrest

December 02, 2013

A Thai Buddhist monk puts on a gas mask as riot police use water cannon and tear gas while anti-government protesters attempt to remove barricades outside Government House in Bangkok on December 2, 2013. (Dylan Martinez/Courtesy Reuters)
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Heads of State and Government

Over the weekend, Thailand’s political unrest, which was already sliding downhill last week, took a turn for the worse. Clashes between anti-government demonstrators, pro-government demonstrators, police, and unidentified thugs resulted in four dead and dozens wounded over the weekend, and the police’s use of force was a blow to the Yingluck Shinawatra government’s promise to use non-violent measures to disperse protests. (The police have used tear gas, some other kind of burning gas, and, according to some media reports, rubber bullets.) The demonstrators show no sign of backing down, even following a meeting between Prime Minister Yingluck and the main protest leader, former Democrat Party politician Suthep Thaugsuban. Suthep has given the government a two-day ultimatum to hand over power. Demonstrators have ignored calls by the government to stay indoors at night and to call off their strikes. It is likely that, whatever kind of head is going to come to this conflict, it will come before December 5, the birthday of Thailand’s revered king. What’s more, the fact that Thailand’s military already has become involved in the crisis, trying to mediate between politicians and moving out to points around the city, is not a good sign for a peaceful resolution by civilians.

The best possible move by Yingluck would be to call a new election. Although, as many commentators have noted, a new election probably would be boycotted by at least some of the opposition—Suthep already has said he is trying to eliminate the “Thaksin regime” root and branch and not contest a new election—a new election would serve several purposes for Yingluck’s government. Puea Thai would almost surely win a new election, and this victory would add legitimacy to Yingluck’s position both in Thailand and around the world. In addition, although Suthep has declared he wants an unelected “people’s” government (an idea that is laughable, given who Suthep is), an election might peel some supporters from the anti-government protests and lead to some opposition politicians also being peeled off. Still, it seems like Yingluck is unlikely to call a new election, and so it is becoming more and more probable that Thailand is heading to a major crisis and an extraconstitutional intervention.

The United States, along with China, is the most important partner of Thailand; Thailand is a treaty ally and a major non-NATO ally, and the U.S. response to any crisis in Bangkok carries significant weight with all sides of the Thai political spectrum. Thus, Washington should, even before December 5, make it clearer to all sides of the Thai political spectrum that the United States will take a much harder line against an extraconstitutional intervention than it has done in the past. I’ll discuss the specifics of a U.S. response in my next post.