Things are changing at ASEAN. It doesn’t matter how much the Philippines bleats on from U.S. State Department crib sheets about the threat of Communist China at this week’s ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
I got a hint of the change when I visited Thailand recently.
Anyone with half a brain knows that going on holiday to Thailand has, for decades, been like showering dollars on a country prostituted to Washington. Since the Second World War, Thailand has been a bulwark of U.S. military might that may have cost the lives of six million in Indo-China (adding up Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia to name a few). So even thinking of holidaying in Thailand – for all its natural beauty – always seemed to me like contemplating a visit to Sun City.
But things are changing. This month, when I visited Thailand, Bangkok witnessed its first visit by a Russian premier in a quarter of a century. And that’s Bangkok under a military government – not the fake democracy promoted by Washington Consensus countries for all too long.
The latest coup government, run by a military commanded by General Prayut Chan-o-cha doesn’t seem to take John Kerry’s calls so easily. And that’s despite the fact he knows very well how President Obama deposed his predecessor in a U.S.-backed 2006 coup against a leader who only slightly deviated from IMF/World Bank neo-genocide. The poor have been dying in Thailand for a long time. And General Prayut is not following the U.S. script.
Thaksin Shinawatra’s democratically elected government was overthrown by President Obama not because of corruption. Thaksin’s problem was he actually responded to some of the pain of his electors by mitigating some IMF structural adjustment programmes. He slowed down Washington’s desire for privatisation of healthcare, housing and education.
De Toqueville famously gave some credit for the Jacobite Revolution to Louis XVI’s tiny moves towards mitigating feudal inequality. It’s when autocracy gives a little that you know it’s the end. And Thaksin, the neoliberal telecoms billionaire, gave a few crumbs away.
Before democratically-elected Thaksin fled to Dubai after the U.S.-backed coup, he had given the poor of Thailand a taste of subsidised healthcare – something the neoliberals at IMF HQ must have recoiled at with horror.
Thaksin’s protégé-sister, Yingluck who was overthrown by General Prayut even allowed a bronze statue of the great poet, journalist and guerrilla Jit Phumisak to go up in Bangkok. Jit who favoured non-aligned revolution was gunned down at 36, a year before Che Guevara. He wrote Chom Na Sakdina Thai; “The Real Face of Thai Feudalism” and the Johnson administration has long been rumoured to have had a hand in his assassination. Perhaps, the Thai people got a glimpse of the future denied them for so long by U.S.-policy.
Did the U.S. see the threat of another Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia who ignored Western economic “advice” during the 1990s collapse of South-East Asia? Back then, U.S. proxy media like the BBC and CNN got very worked up about Mahathir even though Malaysia wasn’t even particularly important for U.S. military operations in the region. Malaysia doesn’t even have a formal military treaty with the U.S. about joint operations.
But Thailand is different. Back when three million Vietnamese were being slaughtered by the U.S., 80% of all American airstrikes originated in Thailand. What could the White House do with a country so militarily important defying neoliberal law? What would happen if it forged military alliances with BRICS countries?
Obama’s plan was to install just another line of leaders in Thailand from the oligarchic elites that have ruled the country under U.S.-watch for as long as anyone can remember. The plan worked out about as well as longstanding IMF economic dictatorship. Thanks to Structural Adjustment Programmes, Thailand is not only a nation of stunning natural splendour being annihilated by uncontrolled tourism. It has a devastating statistical record of injustice.
Thailand has a World Bank GINI coefficient of inequality worse than Burkina Faso’s – nearly as bad that of the United States. Its infant mortality rates at 11 per 1,000 births are approaching those of Ohio’s or DC’s African-American community (14.5 and 14). To put that in perspective infant mortality in countries that don’t support the IMF like Cuba is 4.7. In Malaysia which defied Washington, the figure is 7 per 1,000.
Amidst the infamous Go-Go bars of Bangla Street, staff tell me that the new military government is cracking down on corruption. The Tourist Police are no longer demanding money and free services from sex-workers. Healthcare is getting marginally better in the rural provinces to which money is repatriated by all the Thai workers here. But if General Prayut has a hard time battling the corruption of oligarchic elites whose largesse he, himself, has long benefited from, it is his foreign policy that may ultimately stick in the craw of the White House.
It’s bad enough for Washington to see Bangkok and Moscow get closer after the visit of Russian Prime Minister Medvedev. NATO invokes Ukraine to forge media frenzy against Russia. But NATO invokes the South China Sea to get at Beijing. Just on the Saturday before this week’s 26th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Malaysia, Xu Qiliang from the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party was in Bangkok to hold talks with Thai Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. Elevating military cooperation was top of the agenda. It seems the military government really is recalibrating relations with the U.S.
The Thai Ministry of Transport even appears to want to convert U-Tapao military base 90 miles from Bangkok into a commercial airport that could terminate U.S. military access to runways. There will be a sigh of relief in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
This month, Russian Trade Minister Denis Manturov said “Our friends from the Western part of the world are ignoring Thailand.” Many of the people of Thailand may hope this continues. Expect lots of anti-Thai propaganda in the Western media for the foreseeable future.