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.
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.
In Bangkok, red-shirted protesters loyal to Mr. Thaksin were set to rally again Sept. 19, the third anniversary of the coup. The government has threatened to invoke a tough security law allowing troops to be deployed, as they were in April to quell riots in Bangkok.
By funding and training nonprofit groups in Thailand, USAID is trying to counterbalance the rise of these color-coded protests.
US officials say Thailand's once-vibrant civil society has been divided and sidelined by mass movements that thrive on confrontation and drive the public debate.
Some Thai activists say an emphasis on supporting nonpolitical groups may miss the point.
"I don't think the main problem is about foreign donations. The root cause of the problem is Thai democracy," says Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a veteran activist who runs Prachatai, a leftist news website.
The USAID program also reaches out to Thailand's media, which has been polarized by the political turmoil, and to independent government agencies. These agencies include the Election Commission, which has been accused of partisanship, and the largely ineffectual Human Rights Commission.
Critics say Thaksin, a self-made telecommunications billionaire, dismantled these constitutional checks and balances on executive power during his five-year rule.
His supporters argue that he won fairly at the ballot box and that his royalist opponents have used undemocratic means to exclude him from politics.
Bilateral aid restarted
After the 2006 military coup, US officials began rethinking bilateral aid to Thailand. Subsequent discussions with interested parties over how to strengthen democratic institutions helped frame the program, says Mr. Carduner. He said the current government, the third since elections in December 2007, was on board.
"We wouldn't be initiating this program if we didn't have a good clear sense at a variety of levels that there's enough demand for this sharing of experience," he says.
Thani Thongpakdi, a spokesman for Thailand's Foreign Ministry, says the program was discussed in general terms during bilateral meetings in Washington in April that yielded an agreement in principle.
The US phased out bilateral aid to Thailand and other recipients during a 1990s pullback from cold-war outposts. The fact that its economy was booming at the time made it easier to redirect development money. Thai civil society flourished, too, as a new liberal Constitution was adopted.
The new aid program appears to be a partial throwback to US tutelage during the cold war, says Michael Montesano, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "The breadth of its stated ambitions are striking," he says, "the fact that its stated purpose is to save Thai democracy."
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