5 Key U.S. Cables for Understanding Thailand’s Turmoil

Obtained by Reuters and curated by Andrew MacGregor Marshall.

Rungroj Yongrit-Pool/Getty Images
Rungroj Yongrit-Pool/Getty Images

The Thaksinization of Thailand — Impressions After 3 Months
Ambassador Ralph "Skip" Boyce, gives the lowdown on the strengths and tragic flaws of Thaksin Shinawatra.

"Dominating the scene as no previous civilian leader has ever done, Thaksin’s influence is everywhere. The Bangkok elite, which embraced him as the next new thing four years ago, has grown scornful of him, but he actually revels in thumbing his nose at the capital’s chattering classes. Himself a self-made man from the provinces (according to his myth makers), he has successfully tapped into the aspirations of Thailand’s millions. And unlike previous regimes that rode into power by buying the loyalties of the rural areas, Thaksin has also won over the millions of Bangkok residents who are not from the traditional elite – the mom and pop shopkeepers, the taxi drivers, the food stall vendors, department store salespeople and the day laborers."

Manichaean Struggle for the Soul of Thailand
Brilliant analysis by Boyce on Thaksin vs. the royalists.

"At issue is not just who will be the next prime minister. Rather, this is a confrontation between different models for Thai society, playing out in the struggle between the beloved King, and all he represents, and the popular prime minister, and what he portends. Right now, the momentum is running against Thaksin, who may have to pay a high price for his hubris. But in the longer run, the King is old and the Thailand he represents is changing. Thaksin faces serious challenges right now, but he, or someone like him, is likely to be back."

King Bhumibol Warns of Ruin in the Absence of Unity, but Is Anyone Listening?
Poignant cable by then-Ambassador Eric G. John on the king’s waning influence.

"We believe the King’s purported influence actually far exceeds his actual ability to control events.… Now in the deep twilight of his long reign, the King remains deeply venerated by the vast majority of his subjects, and symbolically he remains the central pillar of Thai identity. Despite this adulation and symbolic importance, however, the evidence suggests his ability to influence current events in his Kingdom, on the rare occasions he attempts to do so, is on the wane."

Circles of Influence Inside the Institution of the Monarchy in King Bhumibol’s Twilight
A remarkable cable by John on intrigue and infighting inside the palace.

"There are in fact multiple circles of players and influence surrounding the Thai royal family, often times with little overlap but with competing agendas, fueled by years of physical separation and vacillating relationships between principals. Separate centers of influence/players focus around: King Bhumibol; Queen Sirikit; Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn; Princess Sirindhorn; and the Privy Council, though the latter has less access/influence than many suppose. In addition, there are supporting bureaucratic entities such as the Office of Principal Private Secretary, the Royal Household Bureau, the Crown Property Bureau, and the Privy Purse, which employ thousands and manage assets in the billions, as well as a bevy of minor royals whose motorcades routinely clog Bangkok’s roads."

China’s Sustained, Successful Efforts to Court Southeast Asia and Thailand — Perspectives and Implications
John surveys the geopolitical landscape.

"Indications that the U.S.’s historically close relationship with Thailand and the region is being challenged by the rise of China have become increasingly evident in recent years in a variety of arenas, not just economically but diplomatically, culturally, politically, and even in some security areas. A U.S.-educated Thai Army Colonel at the National Defense College shocked a group of U.S. one-star officers visiting as part of the CAPSTONE program in the fall of 2008 by stating bluntly: ‘The Thai perceive regional power dynamics as follows: China is rising; the U.S. is distracted/declining; and Thailand will adjust its policies accordingly.’"

Edmund Downie is a Yale University Gordon Grand Fellow currently interning at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He works on the regional political economy of Asia. Follow him at @ned_downie. Twitter: @ned_downie

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