Thailand History

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Scene depicting the 16th-century "War of the Seven White Elephants" in which Queen Suriyothai of Ayutthaya, disguised as a warrior, was killed by a Burmese spear whiledefending her husband King Chakraphat.

OVER THE LAST CENTURY, Thailand has been highly successful in maintaining its independence and national security in a part of the world where dissension, struggles for power, territorial takeovers, armed insurgency, and war have been common. The Thai managed to avoid the direct colonial rule that led many other Southeast Asian countries into years of struggle, and they remain proud of their legacy of independence and wary of international developments they perceive as threatening. As of the late 1980s, the Thai had not fought a major war on their own soil since the eighteenth century, having avoided foreign military encroachment largely through adroit diplomatic maneuvering.

The pragmatism inherent in Thai national security policy brought the country safely through World War II and into the postwar period. Rather than capitulating to the Japanese, the Thai entered into an alliance with them. At the same time, they maintained an active resistance movement that enjoyed the tolerance of the wartime Thai government. This lack of support for their wartime "ally," combined with Thai diplomatic skill, achieved a postwar accommodation with the victorious Allies. In the face of communist advances in parts of Asia after World War II, Thai leaders sought protection against a possible threat from China by joining other countries for collective security through the 1954 Manila Pact, which laid the groundwork for the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). SEATO’s lack of military forces in the tradition of the stronger North Atlantic Treaty Organization, however, left Thai authorities apprehensive about depending on the organization.

In 1962 the country received the added security assurance it sought in the form of the Rusk-Thanat agreement, which stated that the security obligations under the Manila Pact were bilateral as well as collective. The agreement confirmed a long-term protective alliance with the United States, which supplied vast quantities of economic, internal security, and military aid. The close association between the two countries later facilitated United States use of Thai military bases and other facilities during the Second Indochina War (1954-75).

In the mid-1970s, however, Thai leadership began to question the wisdom of depending solely on a protective alliance with the United States. The communists had been successful in Indochina, and the United States role in the region had declined, while the Soviet Union was increasing its support for Thailand’s traditional regional rival, Vietnam. Accordingly, Thailand established diplomatic relations with China in 1975, a step that harmonized with the new policy of accommodation between the United States and China. For Thailand this pragmatic course seemed wise in view of the growing threat posed by Vietnam. Once again, Thai flexibility in national security matters reflected the traditional analogy of bamboo bending with the wind.

Although Thai flexibility improved relations with Vietnam, the Thai viewed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1978 between Hanoi and Moscow, combined with Vietnam’s continued domination of Laos and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, as a serious threat to Thailand’s national security.

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