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Thailand's democracy in turmoil

Last weekend 6,000 protestors demonstrated on the third anniversary of the military coup. US concern about democracy is reflected in USAID's return to boost the nation's once-vibrant civil society.

By Correspondent / September 23, 2009

Tension: A soldier stood guard in his vehicle near a polling station outside a mosque during district elections in southern Thailand on Sept. 6. A separatist insurgency has convulsed the region.

Surapan Boonthanom/ Reuters


Bangkok, Thailand

Alarmed by political instability and Muslim radicalization in Thailand, a longtime military ally, the US government is reaching out to pro-democracy groups here after a 14-year gap.

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The program echoes US efforts to shore up other fragile democracies and underscores concerns of political backsliding in Thailand, once seen as a democratic success story.

The United States is also eager to help calm the Muslim-dominated south, where more than 3,700 people have died since 2004 in a separatist insurgency. A car bomb exploded in late August outside a restaurant filled with government officials, injuring more than 40 people.

While an estimated budget of $30 million to $40 million over five years is modest by comparison with aid programs in countries like Pakistan, it represents an about-face by the US Agency for International Development, which ended bilateral aid to Thailand in 1995. It later opened a regional aid office in Bangkok.

Other Western governments are also exploring ways to support Thai civil society and promote democracy, particularly in the troubled south. But the new USAID program, called "Supporting Citizen Engagement and Peace-building in Thailand," represents a much more decisive push.

"It's important to US interests that Thailand stay on a solid footing," says Olivier Carduner, USAID's director in Thailand. "There's a lot of challenges coming ahead down the road, and we need a good, solid, and strong Thailand to be an effective contributor, just as they have been in the past."

Political analysts and development experts say the program maps out a flexible approach to a deep-rooted political conflict. They say it could run into resistance, though, from Thai conservatives who currently hold the upper hand, particularly in the senior ranks of the military and civil service.

Three years since military coup

As mandated by Congress, USAID funds democracy and governance projects in dozens of countries. A 2007 audit of programs in seven countries worth $162 million found that the majority met performance targets. Five out of the seven "had a positive impact." Two others fell short of their targets.

For the past three years, Thailand has been polarized by a bitter struggle between former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup, and his conservative opponents. Street protests by rival factions wearing red and yellow shirts have paralyzed Bangkok and scared off investors.

Since 2004, security forces have also faced a shadowy insurgency in southern Thailand. After a lull in 2008, the conflict has intensified this year, belying military claims of success against Muslim militants. No clear ties to international jihadist groups have emerged, though analysts say that remains a risk.