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A Public Forum on Thailand and The United States After 180 Years: A Changing Alliance in A Changing Southeast Asia

 A Public Forum on

Thailand and The United States After 180 Years:
A Changing Alliance in A Changing Southeast Asia


 Monday, 9 September 2013 at 08.30 – 11.30 a.m.

The Chumbhot-Pantip Conference Room, 4th Floor Prajadhipok-Rambhaibarni Building

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

 

08.30 – 09.00 a.m.        Registration and Coffee

 

09.00 – 09.10 a.m.        Welcome Remarks

                                              Prof. Dr. Supachai Yavaprabhas

                                              Dean, Faculty of Political Science

                                              Chulalongkorn University

 

        09.10 - 09.30 a.m.          Keynote Speaker

                                              H.E. Ms. Kristie Kenney

                                              The United States ambassador to Thailand

 

09.30 – 11.00 a.m.          Speakers

                                      Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn

                                      Senior Fellow, Institute of Security and International Studies

                                      Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University 

 

                                      Mr. John J. Brandon

                                      Director, International Relations Programs and Associate

                                      Director, Washington, D.C. Asia Foundation

 

                                      Dr. Titipol Phakdeewanich 

                                      Faculty of Political Science

                                      Ubon Ratchathani University

 

                                      Speaker and Moderator:

                                      Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak

                                      Director of ISIS Thailand

                                      Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

 

11.00 – 11.30 a.m.         Q&A

 

.............................................................................................................................................................

 

Video : Thailand and The United States After 180 Years: A Changing Alliance in A Changing Southeast Asia

 

Thailand and The United States After 180 Years: A Changing Alliance in A Changing Southeast Asia 

 Part 1/2 : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jkw8FnSKyw0&feature=youtu.be

Thailand and The United States After 180 Years: A Changing Alliance in A Changing Southeast Asia

Part 2/2 : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDoJ5iXzdpo

 ...........................................................................................................................................

Moderator:

This year marks another milestone in Thai-US relations. Thailand has been America’s oldest friend in Asia since 1833, and the Thai-US treaty alliance that was constituted from 1954 and 1962 was a pillar of American foreign policy in the region throughout the Cold War. Over the past two decades, Thai-US relations have been more fluid and dynamic, in search of new bearings in the pursuit of shared interests and the handling of new challenges. This forum aims to tease out some of the dynamics and prospects in the bilateral relationship in view of a changing regional environment. Is Thailand re-orienting towards Beijing and relatively away from Washington? How might the Thai-US alliance be revitalized? What is the future trajectory of Thai-US relations and where are the new intersections of mutual interests on both sides in view of China’s rise, tensions in the South China Sea, and Beijing’s growing influence in mainland Southeast Asia?

 

Welcome remarks:        

On behalf of the Faculty of Political Science, it was a great honor to welcome everyone to the very important public forum on ‘Thailand and the United States After 180 Years: A Changing Alliance in A Changing Southeast Asia’. Also, it was a great pleasure to welcome the Ambassador of the United States of America at Chulalongkorn University. Dr. Supachai hoped to see a controversial dialogue from the speakers and the participants during the forum.

 

Summary

Keynote Speaker

 

Kristie Kenney

Ambassador Kristie Kenney started a brief background about Thai-US relationship in the last 180 years. Thailand and the US signed the Treaty Amity and Economic Relations in 1966 which formed  the heart and the hub of  the relationship, and remains a very strong aspect of the two countries’ partnership today. The  largest overseas American Chamber of Commerce is located in Thailand which includes large and small companies around Thailand such as Ford and GM. Over the past 180 years, there have been some important dimensions added to the relationship especially  in the last 50 years  in the areas of security, humanitarian assistance, joint peace-keeping and healthcare. While the two countries tried to make their relationship more multi-dimensional, the world has undergone great change, for example today Bangkok  is the most visited city in the world.   The discussion is timely because there are a number of upcoming arenas for top leaders to gather such as at the ASEAN Summit and at APEC. As for Thailand, it has always developed a great relationship with the US. Thailand was a US aid recipient, but now it is the donor nation that assists the US in Myanmar and Laos. Thailand is also a co-partner for the Cobra Gold military program, the largest military exercise in the world.

The changing Southeast Asian and global  landscape have brought challenges to the US and its partners. The new emerging power countries such as China and India have a lot of implications, so the US is trying to draw multiple relationships and multiple friends. The challenge for the US is to ensure that the relationships remain fresh.

The US-Thai relationship has to stay fluid, stay flexible and be ready to adapt to new circumstances. That means the two countries’ relationship cannot be only  one that is government-to-government. The relationship has to include parliamentarians, mayors, and some business delegations. Academics, NGOs and Universities need to link to each other. Finally, people-to-people relations needed to be expanded. The US and Thailand will have to do everything they can to encourage the robustness of the relationship.

In conclusion, many people say that the US does not pay attention to Thailand as much as it used to in the past. There is an explanation; Thailand is located in the center of the region and it is expected to be important in  ASEAN region’s trading bloc. Thailand’s location is at the strategic hub of connectivity between the large powerhouses including China and Malaysia. As a consequence, the Ambassador concluded that Thailand will  continue to have a special relationship with the United States.

 

Kavi Chongkittavorn

For Kavi, the relationship between Thailand and The US can be divided into 4 periods as follows;

The first period began from 1954-1975, which was the best period of the relationship. It was because Thailand and the US had the same enemy during the Cold War – the USSR. They fought for the common interests and that was the beginning of the special relationship.

The second period was between 1974 - 2000; when The US focused shifted to other countries in Southeast Asia especially Vietnam and Cambodia. The alliance between the US, Thailand and the Philippines waned. Cobra Gold came into existence in 1979; it started very small but it eventually became the largest military exercise in the world. Thailand has not benefited from Cobra Gold in the way it should because top students were not sent to participate.

The third period was in 2000 – 2006 which was called ‘rollercoaster relationship’ of Thai-US relationship.  The US spent 1million dollars to promote democracy in Thailand, and there was a lot of engagement during this period. George W. Bush had an excellent rapport with Thaksin during this period. They made good decisions and changed the texture of the relationship; Thailand entered an anti-terrorism campaign, captured Hambali, and was upgraded to a major non-NATO ally (although Thailand did not benefit from this). But it wasn’t all smooth sailing; Thailand joined Afghanistan and Iraq; this fast-tracked an FTA which Thailand and NGOs couldn’t handle the pace of, and it was ultimately a failure.

The fourth period, 2006 – present, was the period of a downturn in Thai-US relation. The coup in 2006 profoundly revealed an infamous template for Thai ‘democracy’. This was unfortunate for Abhisit that the government was not recognized by the US in the 2 years he governed. So unfortunately, this could not reinvigorate the relationship. The US was unhappy particularly with human rights issues and democracy.

The following government did not successfully reinvigorate these relationships. The U-Tapao and NASA issues have been politicized. This has been disappointing because the Thai government failed to turn Thailand into a regional hub on climate change.

Kavi foresaw the future relationship between Thailand and the US as follows;

1.       How to make this Thai relationship more valuable, more value added and more strategic. The Thai military must think strategically. Ideas and speeches must be implemented. Thailand needs to implement these ideas through the foreign ministry and defense ministries together and work out complete strategic relationship with America.  Sectorial thinking and meeting is no longer applicable and the silos must be broken down.

2.       There was 1 area that the US has failed: trying to reform the Thai security sector by making it more democratic, transparent and accountable. America should provide more money to this project.

3.       Thailand has not benefited a great deal  from joining Cobra Gold. Thus, in order to enhance the benefits  of the exercise, top level of military leaders should be encouraged to participate in the program and learn about the interoperability of various allies.

4.       During the Obama visit, the idea was promoted that US can cooperate with the Thais to help third countries in the region, like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This kind of cooperation should be encouraged. In Kavi’s opinion, Thailand would like to work with America on this kind of operation. Thailand should also play a role in strengthening the relationship between the US and China. This is an urgent issue and Thailand has to make use of this opening. 

Thailand missed out on a good time. The Ambassador said that Thailand needs to be flexible, but US needs to be flexible too. Vietnam and the Philippines have rejuvenated their relationships, but Thailand is ranked at the lowest level. The Thai-US relations have very good ingredients, but they do not have the ability to put it together

 

John Brandon

John Brandon described his first visited Thailand in 1978 when Vietnam War finished. Thailand and the US were already at the special level. Thailand was a real receptacle of other people. There were refugees coming from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos because Thailand was a committed Cold War ally.

At an operational level, things seem to be working well. But, this is now not the old, indispensable alliance. There are no longer the external issues facing the relationships that drew the two countries together. All countries act in their own self-interest, so when there is a synergy, the two countries have a close relationship.  During the Cold War, there was a close collaboration because of this.

In 1997, Thailand was experiencing an economic crisis, but the US did not come to Thailand’s defense. There was a reason for that; a couple of years before there was the Mexican peso crisis; Clinton bailed Mexico out, but Congress would never do this again. At the time this happened, there wasn’t the political capital in the Administration to request these funds to help Thailand. This meant that the “special relationship”, a friend and ally, longest relationship in Asia was losing its strength. This meant that US looked unreliable.

Initially, Brandon thought the United States rebalancing towards Asia was over securitized, not focused enough on trade and economics. That is changing with the TPP (although some see that is trying to divide ASEAN and ASEAN and China). The Administration and Congress have had some problems with trade agreements. Since 2008 The US has had a lag in economic recovery, even though it has improved since then. In the US, there is a desire among people to focus on internal issues rather than continuing to focus on external. The US has become war-weary and focuses on domestic issues.

Thai-US relations seem to be more characterized by reacting to the US requests rather than initiations. Thailand would be better if it began initiating more. In Washington, the embassy tries to be very active; there are Thai cultural performances and such activities every month. This is a good thing, but there are larger issues. There is a need to expand the people-to-people relationships from students to students and MPs to business operators.

At a time where ASEAN is trying to integrate economically, the US and other extra-regional powers, how might SMEs play a role on both sides? How might the expatriates help develop the relationships?  Not just GM, Fords and Chevrons of the world.

 In terms of strengthening regional cooperation, the two countries should focus on the US-Thai development programs. Thailand has a very critical strategic location. It is in Thailand’s interests to have a very strong mainland SEA. If there was coordination amongst all donors; Thailand, with its large economy in the region, can play an excellent role.

Brandon mentioned Kavi’s historical reasons of Thailand having a special relationship with the US. However, it is no longer special now. The topic should be discussed in how to reinvigorate this relationship again in the future.

Despite its problems internally, Thailand is a better place than it was in 1978. While it is not any ‘extra special’ today than the other relationships with major powers in the region, it is still an important and meaningful relationship; the US and Thailand should strengthen it to make sure that it can withstand external trends and threats.

The change in vocabulary from partner-client to partnership occurred in the 1980s. Now both countries have to find common ground for their strategic objectives. For Thailand, if it does not want to be imbalanced, the US- Thai relationship will be crucial for Thailand. For the US, if the pivot/rebalance is real, then they cannot do it without Thailand. Thailand is crucial for the ASEAN landmass and is a critical player in ASEAN.

Nowadays, Thailand spends a lot of students to China and hasmore cooperation with China. Thailand needs to ensure that it remains balanced; Thais cannot be too lopsided either way.  Thailand is now much more diversified with its relationship and outlook. It needs to look at new realities in the region.

 

Titipol Phakdeewanich

Much has already been made of this year's 180th anniversary of bilateral Thai-US relations, and with it a tendency perhaps to idealize a shared history. What is missing, however, is a more convincing expression of future purpose and direction that would communicate to the Thai public the relevance of this relationship in the future. What then, of the roles likely to be played by both Thailand and the US within the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) in particular, over the next few years?

There has been a long history of the Western powers' involvement across Southeast Asia, and it’s a mixed record, with the case of Laos in particular a close-to-home reminder of this legacy. This involves Thailand too, with the still unresolved and largely disregarded question of the status of Lao refugees from the time of the Vietnam War, who are now situated in Thailand's northeast.

In the remote village of Ban Bahai, in Ubon Ratchathani, within a few kilometers of their homeland, Lao people continue to suffer from a lack of acknowledgment by the Thai government. Approximately 100 of its population of 900 have remained stateless in the decades since they were forced to from Laos due to the war.

One villager spoke anonymously: "I worked for the US army as a military support in Laos during the war, before I moved to Thailand. I want to return home, but my children think of themselves as Thai. They are Lao ethnically, but they were born here, so they feel more Thai than I do. I remain stateless, with no rights or access to basic social benefits."

Questions remain as to why there is so little progress on this matter, and why the problems must apparently continue until such a time when a resolution becomes more politically opportune. This situation may be, at least in part, because Thailand has yet to more fully reflect on its own involvement in the Vietnam War. This is the war that Lao people so often describe as "The American War against Laos", in which Thailand was assisted both economically and militarily.

Because many within the region, quite understandably, remain suspicious of the United States’ intent, an approach to "soft-power" diplomacy – that more tangibly demonstrates that it is taking responsibility for its role in Laos – may be for the US one of the most effective ways it can revitalize its reputation in the region.

The emphasis on soft power in the years immediately preceding its "Asian pivot" reveals a definite understanding by the US of the work that is yet to be done. Moreover, this is also a reflection of the more limited capacity of the US to directly implement the kinds of changes that it would like to see in the world.

However, US interests in the GMS today are not isolated, narrow interests, and they are no longer seemingly exclusive to the US. Its networks of interest continue to grow in complexity, despite the apparent fact that its ability to act unilaterally is now diminished. It is with the recognition of this that the US launched the Lower Mekong Initiative in 2009, and this is charged with supporting the environment, education, health, agriculture, energy and connectivity across Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as Thailand.

The GMS is now a nexus zone that demonstrates the multifaceted nature of international relations, and this requires more nuanced understanding that mitigates the temptation of political and economic short-term expedience. Among the many complex issues, recognition of rights from a responsive government is increasingly seen as a barometer of trust between nations. This is therefore, not the time for regional players such as Thailand to be waiting for others to provide vital direction and leadership.

Thailand is now in an era when the US will increasingly look to its most reliable partners to demonstrate their commitment, and thus their reputation, in promoting progress around the world. Thailand can recognize this as an opportunity, as well as a moral responsibility. The continuing plight of stateless refugees along Thailand's northeastern border is one such case in point.


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