Always a balancing act for Thailand?

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EI SUN OH

EI SUN OH

After a prolonged period of essentially being confined to a sickbed, King Bhumipol of Thailand passed away last week at the ripe age of 89. Bhumipol reigned for seven decades, the longest of modern monarchs around the world. He ascended to the throne almost right after the Second World War, experienced both the commencement and the conclusion of the Cold War, and of course, the uniquely turbulent modern political history of Thailand. Almost the whole of Thailand was saddened incessantly by the passing of Bhumipol, and a whole year of mourning has been declared.

Indeed, Thailand possesses a unique yet exemplary, seemingly self-contradictory status among the Southeast Asian nations. One of Thailand’s unique characteristics lies in the fact that it was the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by either Western or an Eastern major power. Throughout its history, Thailand has always been a fertile rice producer, thus attracting the attention of the various colonial powers. When absolute monarchy was the practice of the day, the competent Thai kings who ruled personally were obliged to be cognizant of all sorts of colonial intentions surrounding Thailand. To the east of Siam (Thailand’s old name) was French Indochina. As France’s colonial claws crept into Cambodia and Laos, its eyes coveted Siam as an even bigger prize.

And the British have already possessed vast colonies to the west (Burma) and south (Malaya) of Siam. If they could just “swallow” this piece of intermediate, fecund land, it would, indeed, link up a huge expanse of the British Empire in the Far East. Therefore, successive Thai kings, such as Mongkut and Chulalongkorn, would have to be ever vigilant and attempt to balance the various colonial ambitions, in order to prolong Thailand’s more than nominal independence. In comparison, China, which borders the north of Thailand, although having had numerous clashes with this neighbor country in the long river of history, was then itself embroiled in having to deal with its own stretch of colonial aggressions, and thus, did not pose a meaningful threat to Thailand.

The Thai kings of those days really had to be adroit in balancing various major powers, sometimes even playing one another in order to enhance Thailand’s interests. Imagine if you were the British, initially harboring colonial ambition toward Thailand, and the Thai king told you bluntly that you’d better help him modernize his military, and might as well reform his outdated socioeconomic system and improve his people’s livelihood, else how could he come up against the French’s creeping moves on the east, and thereby protect your colonial interests in Burma and Malaya so that they don’t come into direct contact and even conflict with the French? To a certain degree, you were actually compelled to provide assistance to build up the Thai military and improve its economy.

But the Thailand of those years was not totally siding with the British. Thailand’s balancing act was most pronounced during, at least, the initial phase of the Second World War. Japanese militarism was then at its height, simultaneously attacking the Pearl Harbor and sending troops to invade Southeast Asia, especially British Malaya. Thailand, which was supposed to be at least an unofficial British ally, unexpectedly (at least from the British Malayan perspective) entered into an arrangement with Japan, such that the Japanese Imperial Army was able to land in the southern part of Thailand and invade Malaya from the north, allegedly in exchange for the Japanese not invading and occupying Thailand proper. Thus, while the rest of Southeast Asia was engulfed in the merciless sweep of war, Thailand emerged relatively unscathed from the Second World War.

When Bhumipol ascended the Thai throne after the war, Thailand was by then a constitutional monarchy. Although revered by the Thai people, the king officially did not possess much political power. Born in the US and educated in Switzerland, Bhumipol was enamored with jazz music. Even after he was crowned, he not only formed his own band for some time, but also jammed with visiting world renowned jazz legends. His international image was partially thus quite positive and encouraging. Domestically, Bhumipol stressed agricultural development. He frequently visited the rural areas, sometimes using royal funds to push forward various agricultural programs that benefited the rural folks. He was, thus, genuinely adored by Thai commoners.

Of course, modern Thai history would not be complete without mention of military interventions. Almost every few years, the Thai military chiefs, in what must have been their infinite wisdom, would opine that the civilian government of the day was no longer in the best interest of the people or the nation, and swiftly mount a coup d’état to set up a junta for a few or even a dozen years or so. Only afterward would they gradually return powers to civilian rule, and the cycle would repeat again. But the junta chiefs would always seek the consent (after the fact, at least) of the Thai king as the basis of their legitimate rule. The television scene of those junta chiefs prostrating themselves before Bhumipol after a coup often fascinated me.

And at least part of what is so exemplary about Thailand among Southeast Asian nations lies in the fact that even under the often turbulent circumstances of undulating military coups and the ensuing socio-political turmoil, the Thai economy advances steadily, albeit grudgingly so. Thailand is one of the few leading economies of Southeast Asia, and once belonged to the four “Asian Tigers.” It could only be hoped that after the passing of Bhumipol, Thailand would still manage to balance its precarious sociopolitical states both domestically and externally, so as to continue to contribute to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia.

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