Thai-US friendship: the next stage

opinion July 30, 2013 00:00

By Titipol Phakdeewanich

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Much has already been made of this year's 180th anniversary of bilateral Thai-US relations, and with it a tendency perhaps to idealise a shared history. What is missing, however, is a more convincing expression of future purpose and direction that would c

As argued earlier this year by the former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, during a speech in January: “America today is stronger at home and more respected in the world.” Nevertheless, the question arises as to what extent this statement reflects current perceptions within the countries of the GMS. 
There has been a long history of the Western powers’ involvement across Southeast Asia, and its 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 northeastern. 
In the remote village of Ban Bahai, in Ubon Ratchathani, within a few kilometres 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 US’s 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 revitalise 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. 
We are 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 recognise 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.
Titipol Phakdeewanich is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick. He is based at Ubon Ratchathani University,