West deploring Thailand's "setback" is just half the story
Thailand’s diplomatic relations appear to have changed dramatically since the May 22 coup. The United States, European Union and Australia condemned the power seizure and, to varying degrees, downgraded relations with Bangkok. While many Thais view the coup as a gamble, realising there is no guarantee that much-desired political reform will be delivered under military rule, countries that are responding with strong-handed measures might be taking risks too – if they want Thailand as an international partner.
Bangkok has been pushed toward China thanks to Western condemnation of the coup, a stark contrast to Beijing’s empathy. How much closer Thailand and China will be in the months to come, when the National Council for Peace and Order still holds sway, remains to be seen. On the one hand, Thailand’s strong Western ties are long established, and trade relations are not easy to turn around. On the other hand, it’s clear that the fresh estrangement involves not just the Thai generals but also a sizeable portion of the Thai public, who could have influence over the country’s diplomatic direction.
Appeals for understanding and sympathy have flowed in a constant stream on newspaper opinion pages, the social media and even from the junta itself. There are extremely angry words, too. Both pleading and anger have long been part of the history of Thai-Western relations. The resentment is rooted in the perceived threats to political and economic interests on both sides.
With their effective information-gathering mechanisms, it’s unlikely that the Western countries concerned do not realise the scale of Thai bitterness and anger. That they have pressed on regardless, seeking to ostracise Thailand, has inflamed negative feelings here further. Rightly or wrongly, Western nations have taken sides in the Thai conflict. Whether their position is dictated by democratic principles or economic interests, or both, it’s a gamble all the same.
Why are so many Thais upset with the West’s reaction? For three reasons: because the coup halted violence that looked like it could escalate into something worse; because this is a Thai problem for Thais to solve in their own way (however painful “the cure”); and, of course, because of a lingering mistrust of Western “motives”. Many Thais simply feel they are being punished for trying to solve a problem that was threatening to get badly out of hand.
China has not turned a deaf ear to our complaints. While Western sympathies have tipped toward one side of the Thai conflict, Beijing has simply demonstrated that it understands why Thailand has come to this point. For that, Thais can be thankful. And because of that, Thailand’s foreign-relations horizon is looking quite intriguing.
But, in the final analysis, oil and other valuable resources hold more sway over relations between countries than the ideologies espoused by their governments. Thailand’s post-coup diplomacy might have as much to do with the energy sector as the fact that the country’s democracy is “taking a break”. Foreign relations are largely business-driven nowadays, which means smiles, anger, criticism or downgrading of military cooperation can often be merely a sideshow.
Democratic norms are often invoked among diplomats, meaning they tend to overuse and overvalue “democracy” as a concept. What’s happening in the case of Thailand? Those still relying on textbook ideology for answers could get a better understanding by following the money trail.