- Politics and International Relations
- Domestic politics and international relations of Thailand as well as politics of mainland Southeast Asia and interstate relations
Foreign Policy of Thailand
I worked on the topic of foreign relations of Thailand. In the case of Thailand, I argue that changing international circumstances have allowed the military regime to entrench itself in the political realm and to exploit the latest global trend to achieve self-legitimization. In this new trend, China has emerged to shift the regional balance of power and contest the hegemony of the United States, now with President Donald Trump at a wobbly helm. Elsewhere, democracy and regionalism is being seriously challenged, as prevalently seen in Europe and Asia. Riding on such trend, the Thai military government is steering the country closer towards not-so-democratic states in the region while moving its foreign policy away from its traditional allies in the West. The Prayuth Chan-ocha government is content to take advantage from the growing anti-democratic tendency as a way to fulfill its legitimacy on the global stage.
Thailand’s democratisation and the middle class
Scholars on the whole concur that the growth of the middle class and civil society organisations play a pivotal part in the promotion of democracy. Since the Thai political crisis of 2005 that eventually culminated in a military coup a year later overthrowing the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, it became apparent that the Thai middle class and an army of civil society organisations are no longer agents of change, but instead became guardians of the ancien régime to protect their political advantages. In 2005, Bangkok-based members of the middle class took to the streets in order to topple Thaksin, largely considered a champion of the poor, on the grounds that he abused power for his own benefits. Clad in yellow shirts, these protesters also accused Thaksin of disrespecting the much-revered monarchy—an inviolable institution in Thailand. Yellow is the colour of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and therefore the mission of removing Thaksin’s regime became imperative and legitimate. On the part of the middle class and civil society, what they claimed to be guarding was democracy, supposedly tainted by self-interested politicians like Thaksin. At a deeper level, the fear of Thaksin and his assertive populist policy to empower the marginalised rural residents explains why the middle class and civil society rejected his kind of democracy. The monarchy, long regarded as a symbol of prosperity of the Thai middle class, conveniently provided itself as an instrument for its supporters in disparaging democracy à la Thaksin through a binary explanation: moral and immoral politics, with the monarch representing the moral force versus immoral and selfish politicians.
The middle class and civil society thus exploited the royal institution for their own gains, and only offered their support for democracy when it responded to their needs. However, the era of King Bhumibol has recently ended. He passed away on October 13, 2016, paving the way for his unpopular son, Vajiralongkorn, to be enthroned. The anxiety that accompanies his departure has further alienated the middle class and civil society from their supposedly usual role as agents of change toward democracy. This explains why the Thai middle class and civil society endorsed the military coup—with the latest coup occurring in 2014 when the military removed Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin, from power. The 2014 coup was testimony to the way in which the Thai middle class and civil society rejected democracy. This paper argues that, based on the above context, how the middle class and civil society organisations treated democracy relied primarily on the extent to which any political change affected their political interests. With the royal succession and uncertainties brought about by the new king, the middle class and civil society voiced their suspicion toward democracy, mainly because, without King Bhumibol, the monarchy can no longer guarantee political interests in the transitional period. The Thai case is not uncommon and can be witnessed in other parts of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, when democracy ceases to deliver stability for the middle class and civil society.
Myanmar’s Foregin Relations
As for the case of Myanmar, it now faces a “crisis of community” which affects its foreign policy actions and interpretations. Deep-seated legacy issues have beset the NLD government up to its mid-term mark in 2018 and will possibly even affect the 2020 elections. Foremost among these is dealing with ethnic conflict and communal strife, which now define Myanmar’s political moment. International attention has been seized by the political and humanitarian implications of the largest exodus to date of Rohingya communities from Rakhine State (UN estimates place it close to 700,000) in the wake of harsh military operations on Rohingya communities in Northern Rakhine, following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) in August 2017. My own observations and assessment of the country’s foreign policy trajectory sees the instinct for survival as a constant link through different iterations of foreign policy over the decades. We argue that this self-preservation instinct may compel the government of Myanmar today towards a new form of neutrality.