America's Role in Aiding Thai Democracy

By , Catharin Dalpino is the Washington Director of The Asia Foundation's Center for Asian Pacific Affairs. She worked in Thailand from 1987 to 1990. The views expressed are her own and not necessarily those of the Asia Foundation.

AFTER the violent confrontation between soldiers and pro-democracy protesters in May, Thailand began reforming its political system. A constitutional amendment requiring that the prime minister be an elected member of Parliament was approved in June. It is a watershed reform, because it has closed a loophole that has invited military intervention in Thai politics for 60 years. Elections held last month put a coalition of pro-democratic parties into power that can be expected to press for further democrat ic change.

Institutional reform and enlightened leaders are important to Thailand's democratization. But they aren't enough. The more difficult - and essential - task will be to ease a bruised and still powerful military into a new role, one that supports a democratic society and accepts civilian control, not only of the political process but of the military itself.

That will be an intricate and lengthy affair. Since May, however, the hint of a coalition has emerged from the Thai military that publicly advocates the withdrawal of the Armed Forces from direct involvement in the political process.

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Without encouragement, this nascent but critical reform movement could be extinguished by continued civil-military rivalry. The United States has the means to help tilt the balance in favor of officers who see themselves as citizens in uniform, rather than as heirs to a political fortune.

With an elected civilian government in place in Bangkok, the US is considering the restoration to Thailand of economic and security aid suspended after the 1991 military coup. That assistance ranged from support for democratic institutions, through a program administered by the US Agency for International Development, to professional training for Thai officers under the Defense Department's International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.

But simply restoring the previous aid package won't send a strong enough signal that Washington wants, and expects, democratization to continue. If the US is to help Thailand achieve genuine democratic change, it must not stop with cheering on pro-democracy civilian groups. It must address the Thai military directly, through the security partnership.

Indeed, cooperation on security has been the most enduring aspect of US-Thai relations. In the 1960s, US military aid to Thailand exceeded the country's own defense budget for several years running, and tripled the size of the Thai Army.

The swollen intake of the '60s has now risen to the senior officer level. The Thai Army has an average of one general for every 350 troops, 10 times the ratio found in the armies of the advanced democracies.

Many of these generals are without portfolio, and are thus tempted to stray from defense into other areas of national policy.

Official US-Thai relations cooled after the 1991 suspension of aid except, ironically, for the security relationship. In 1991 and 1992 combined, sales of American military equipment to Thailand came to three-quarters of a billion dollars. Disenchanted with Chinese arms, the Thais now look to the US for tanks offered from surplus stockpiles and, more recently, for F-16 fighters.

Under a more integrated and focused policy, US arms sales should be examined in light of their effect on the continued militarization of Thai society, and on the balance between reformers and hard-liners within the military. The IMET program should be used to strengthen reform elements in the Thai military, by offering training in the role of armed forces in a democratic system.

This policy will mean blazing new trails in Washington as well as Bangkok. The American security community and the "democracy gang" of official and private institutions concerned with global democratization seldom confer, much less cooperate, with one another. But each is needed, to ensure that both ends of the Thai spectrum sign on to democracy.

Some defense officials will decry this approach as risking a partnership that continues to serve US military interests. Thai bases, they point out, were used as staging points for American forces during the Gulf war.

But the US holds a high card in a region caught off guard by the sudden end of the cold war. At the foreign ministers' meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in July, Thailand joined in urging that America maintain its security presence in Asia, to serve as a regional stabilizer.

More at risk is the US relationship with pro-democracy forces. Ultimately, America's sincerity will be judged by its willingness to move toward a security relationship that supports, rather than undermines, Thai democratic goals.

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