Thailand History

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In the 1980s, the Cambodian-Vietnamese question was a principal concern of Thai foreign policy makers, who found common cause with countries that also opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Security once again became an important consideration in the determination of Bangkok’s foreign policy.

In 1979 the ASEAN members were apparently divided over the Cambodian-Vietnamese situation. Indonesia and Malaysia were reportedly more conciliatory toward Hanoi than Thailand and Singapore, viewing China rather than Vietnam as the principal threat to regional stability. Indonesia and Malaysia wanted a strong and stable Vietnam as a potential ally, or at least as a buffer, against Chinese expansionism. They were inclined to tolerate to a degree the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia and to recognize the Heng Samrin regime, provided that some Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia and the political base of the regime was reconstituted more broadly.

The ASEAN differences were turned aside in June 1980, when Vietnamese troops crossed the border into Thailand. The incursion, which coincided with an annual ASEAN ministerial conference in Kuala Lumpur, was contrary to earlier Vietnamese assurances that they would not encroach on Thai territory. The ASEAN foreign ministers strongly condemned the incursion as "an act of aggression" and reaffirmed their undivided support for the UN resolution of November 1979. They also reaffirmed their recognition of the deposed government of Democratic Kampuchea-- their rationale being that to recognize the Heng Samrin regime would be tantamount to rewarding Vietnamese aggression in Cambodia. At the first UN-sponsored international conference on Cambodia held in New York in July 1981, Thailand and its ASEAN allies played a key role in seeking a political settlement of the Cambodian question. The conference was attended by delegates from seventy-nine countries and observers from fifteen others, but it was boycotted by Vietnam, Laos, the Soviet Union and its allies, and some nonaligned nations. The conference adopted a resolution that, among other things, called for a cease-fire by all armed Cambodian factions, the withdrawal of all foreign troops under the supervision of a UN observer group, the restoration of Cambodian independence, the establishment of a nonaligned and neutral Cambodia, and the establishment of an ad hoc committee comprising Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Thailand to advise the UN secretary general on ways to implement the resolution.

Relations between Thailand and China improved steadily in the 1980s, with Beijing sharing Bangkok’s opposition to Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia and affirming its support for the Thai and ASEAN stance on the Cambodian question. China sought to reassure Bangkok of its withdrawal of support for the Communist Party of Thailand and offered military assistance to Thailand in the event the latter was attacked by Vietnam. In the mid-1980s, Chinese arms and supplies for the Khmer Rouge resistance forces reportedly were being shipped through Thai territory. In 1985 a telephone hotline was established between Thailand and China in an effort to coordinate their activities in the event of a major Vietnamese incursion into Thailand. Cordiality in Thai-Chinese relations was evident in a military assistance agreement signed in Beijing in May 1987. This agreement allowed Thailand to purchase, on concessional terms, Chinese tanks, antiaircraft guns, missiles, ammunition, and armored personnel carriers.

Despite some friction over trade issues, Thai relations with the United States were very close, especially from 1979 onward. The United States reassured its commitment to Thai security under the Rusk-Thanat agreement of 1962 as well as the Manila Pact of 1954. In addition to backing the ASEAN position on Cambodia, Washington steadily increased its security assistance to Thailand and also took part in a series of annual bilateral military exercises. Spurred by Vietnamese incursions in 1985 and the arrival in Vietnam of Soviet-piloted MiG-23s, Thailand decided to buy twelve F-16 fighter-bombers from General Dynamics in the United States. Moreover, under an accord reached in October 1985, the two countries began to set up a war reserve weapons stockpile on Thai soil, making Thailand the first country without a United States military base to have such a stockpile. The stockpile, subject to approval by the United States Congress, was to be used only in a "nation-threatening emergency" or to repulse possible armed invasion by Soviet-supported Vietnamese and other forces from Cambodia.

Trade was an irritant in Thai-American relations, but many observers agreed that the trade problems would not likely affect the long-standing friendship and cooperation between the two countries. The United States was a major trading partner and by 1985 had become the largest and most important export market for Thai goods. Thailand enjoyed a trade surplus with the United States, which grew from a modest US$100 million in 1983 to about US$1 billion in 1986 (see International Trade , ch. 3). Meanwhile, there was growing Thai criticism that the United States had become protectionist in trade relations with Thailand. By 1987, however, many informed Thai had come to believe that problems in Thai-American trade relations would be temporary.

In 1987 Thailand continued to express its desire for mutually beneficial relations with the Soviet Union and to affirm its neutrality in the Sino-Soviet rivalry. Relations with Moscow, however, were merely correct, if not cool, as a result of Thai apprehension over Soviet intentions toward Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular. Thai concern was prompted by Moscow’s military aid to Vietnam and its continued support of Hanoi’s involvement in Cambodia. During his visit to Moscow in May 1987, Minister of Foreign Affairs Siddhi Savetsila of Thailand told his Soviet counterpart that Cambodia was "the test case" of Soviet intentions toward Asia and the Pacific region. He urged the Soviet Union to use its "immense influence and prestige" to bring about a quick and durable settlement of the Cambodian question. Such settlement, according to Siddhi, entailed an early withdrawal of some 140,000 Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, Cambodian exercise of the right of self- determination, and the formation of a neutral and nonaligned Cambodia posing no threat to its neighbors. At the end of the May visit, a protocol was signed establishing a Thai-Soviet trade commission.

As Thailand and Japan celebrated the centennial of their relationship in 1987, Japan continued to be Thailand’s principal trading partner and largest foreign investor (see International Trade and Finance , ch. 3). The generally cordial relations between the two countries--dating back to 1887, when Japan was the first country to set up a foreign embassy in Bangkok--were marred in the 1970s and 1980s by a continuous imbalance of trade. In 1984 Thailand’s trade deficit with Japan accounted for 62 percent of its total trade deficit for the year, up from 46 percent in the previous year. Japan’s economic dominance was much criticized as exploitive and, in late 1984, was the target of a campaign against Japanese goods launched by university students. The Thai government stated that such a campaign offered little or no solution to the deficit problem. Thailand’s preferred solution was for Japan to open its market to Thai products, increase its aid and loans to Thailand, set up export-oriented industries in Thailand, and enhance economic cooperation through more active transfers of technology. In 1986 Thailand’s trade deficit with Japan decreased 32 percent from the 1984 figure.

In 1987 a major foreign policy goal for Thailand was the restoration of its traditionally cordial ties with Laos, strained since 1975, when Bangkok came to perceive Laos as a client state of Vietnam. In 1979 Thailand and Laos agreed to improve their relations by promoting bilateral trade and allowing free access to the Mekong River by border residents. Nonetheless, relations between Bangkok and Vientiane continued to be tense, marred by frequent shooting incidents on the Mekong. In 1981 Thailand banned 273 "strategic" commodities from export or transshipment to Laos. In mid-1984 armed clashes occurred over the status of three remote border villages. Laos raised this issue in the UN Security Council, rejecting Thailand’s proposal to determine the territoriality of the villages through a joint or neutral survey team. Meanwhile, one important economic link continued to be unaffected by political or security matters: Laos sold electricity to Thailand, earning as much as 75 percent of its annual foreign exchange from this transaction.

On the initiative of Laos, the two sides met in November 1986 to reaffirm their commitment to the 1979 accord on neighborly relations. At about the same time, Thailand began to relax its trade embargo, thereby decreasing the number of banned items to sixty-one. Apparently, this action was taken under pressure from Thai businessmen, whose exports to Laos had dropped sharply from 81 percent of the total imports of Laos in 1980 to 26 percent in 1984. Thai exports to Laos increased in 1985 and 1986, but the future of economic links between the two countries was uncertain. With Soviet assistance, the Laotians planned to complete by 1988 a major highway from Savannakhet across Laos to the Vietnamese port of Danang, thus lessening the traditional dependence of Laos on Thailand for access to the sea for foreign trade.

In March 1987, the two sides met again to discuss matters of mutual concern but made no progress. Although 40,000 to 60,000 Vietnamese troops were still present on Laotian soil, Laos continued to accuse Thailand of harboring its historic ambition to dominate the region. Moreover, Vientiane accused Bangkok of being in collusion with the United States in engaging in unfriendly acts to destabilize the Laotian government. The alleged acts, along with Thai occupation of the three "Lao villages," were stated by Vientiane to be the main barriers to improvement of Laotian-Thai relations. For its part, Thailand charged that Laos was aiding the Pak Mai (New Party), a small, pro-Vietnamese, Thai communist insurgent group that had split from the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Thailand in 1979. Furthermore, Thailand accused Laos of turning a blind eye to heroin production inside Laos and of refusing to cooperate in the suppression of narcotics trafficking between Laos and Thailand. In March 1987, the Bangkok Post lamented in an editorial, "It is strange but true that the country with which Thailand has just about everything to share except ideology should happen to be one of the hardest to deal with."

Nevertheless, Thailand was committed to solving its problems with the neighboring states of Indochina--Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The Thai flexibility in foreign policy that had enabled the country to avoid conquest or colonization by foreign powers included a dedication to maintaining good relations with all nations, great and small. Given this commitment and adaptability, it was likely that Thailand, perhaps in concert with its ASEAN partners, would soon reach a mutually agreeable accommodation with its Indochinese neighbors.

* * *

Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State by Charles F. Keyes is a good general introduction to the socioeconomic and political setting of Thailand. Equally informative are Thailand: Society and Politics by John L.S. Girling, which provides an excellent perspective on Thai politics from 1963 to 1977, based on the author’s professional, as well as scholarly, experience in Thailand; Thak Chaloemtiarana’s Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism, which has an informative discussion on the dynamics of military rule from 1947 to 1970; and Modern Thai Politics: From Village to Nation, edited by Clark D. Neher, a collection of useful articles dealing with Thai political culture and process at all levels. Political dynamics, particularly "the actual events, people, and institutions active during the period of open politics" (1973-76), are given excellent treatment in Political Conflict in Thailand by David Morell and Chai- anan Samudavanija.

The Thai Young Turks by Chai-anan Samudavanija is highly useful for understanding the role of the military in Thai politics, with particular attention to the Class Seven (1960) graduates of the Chulachomkhlao Royal Military Academy, David F. Haas’s Interaction in the Thai Bureaucracy offers a useful discussion on the way district-level civil servants behave in response to the structural and cultural parameters of Thailand’s bureaucratic polity. The Bureaucratic Elite of Thailand by Likhit Dhiravegin is an insightful study of senior-level Thai civil servants.

In addition, for an understanding of political events, issues, personalities, and institutions active in the political evolutions of the 1980s, specific articles on Thailand in the following publications are recommended: Southeast Asian Affairs, Asian Survey, and the annual Far Eastern Economic Review Asia Yearbook. (For further information and complete citations, see thailand/th_bibl.asp"> Bibliography.)

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