As a daily reader of the Bangkok Post, I was intrigued by a traditional image concept from days gone by that had been modified to include the banner of China, as shown below. Moreover, the title, Thailand in the Middle, and the dramatically Chinese slanted content, caused me to note that it was a “sponsored article” – the cost of which was more than likely paid by Emperor Xi himself. Shame on the Bangkok Post for allowing such flagrant propaganda to be rolled into their newspaper which ordinarily provides open journalism in a country that requires careful navigation given potential consequences for Lese-majèsté transgressions against the Thai royalty.
The longest co-military alliance in Thailand’s history is with the flag on the right and certainly not that of China above. The Joint United States Military Advisory Group Thailand (JUSMAGTHAI) was established in 1953. The Chief of JUSMAGTHAI also serves as the Senior Defense Official and Defense Attaché to Thailand. At the height of the Vietnam War, there were some 45,000 US military specialists assigned to Thailand under the direction of the group. Currently, joint combined bilateral military exercise programs average some sixty per year. JUSMAGTHAI is located on a Royal Thai Armed Forces military compound near the American Embassy. You will note the long standing JUSMAGTHAI logo below is pure of any Chinese incursion.
Chinese propaganda goes to great lengths to promote the concept that there is a high percentage of Chinese ethnicity in the Thai population and that Chinese is the native tongue of prominent Thai leaders of commerce. It is true that a handful of Thai industrialists are of Chinese origin and cannot speak proper Thai. If they were not so wealthy and powerful, they would be the subject of comical media attention. On the other hand, during the height of the communist terrorist activity in Thailand some fifty years ago, most ethnic Chinese quickly assumed Thai names. Once in 1969, a Thai/Chinese assistant of mine, Khun Choochat, solved a major communication problem we had with the head of our bank in Vientiane, Laos. The president of the bank spoke no known language that I could offer—English, Thai, or French, but Khun Choochat gave Chinese a try. I had never considered Khun Choochat might speak the Teochew Chinese dialect though he saved our bacon that day as he seemed as Thai as most anyone.
The “sponsored” article in the Bangkok Post states that 40% of the Thai people have some Chinese blood and 15% consider themselves to be Chinese. The strength of a nation of various tribal ethnicities melded with non-indigenous people many years ago is no different than the population of most developed countries. After over fifty years of interaction with the Thai people, I never met one that considered themselves anything but Thai. The December 19, 2021, front page of the Bangkok Post shows the image of Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanchai who won the World Mixed Badminton Doubles Championship for Thailand. They are proud of their accomplishment and the recognition it brought to their country.
Governmental relations with Thailand began with the following edited message from President Abraham Lincoln to His Majesty King Mongkut—Rama IV—in February 1862 when he wrote to thank the King for gifts he sent and his offer to send Thai elephants to the US. Lincoln began his letter with “Great and Good Friend” thanking him for sending “rich presents” … as tokens of goodwill and friendship for the American people.” Lincoln did stress the need for trade among countries which resonated with what was then Siam but had to clarify that elephants would not do well in our climate.
In case you do not recognize King Mongkut, shown below, he was portrayed by Yul Brynner in The King and I. Anna Leonowens, the governess to King Mongkut’s children was also prominent in the theatrical portrayals. In the late sixties, a male descendent of Anna Leonowens had a large property near my office on Suriwongse Road in Bangkok. Often, I would walk down to Patpong to have a bowl of noodles for lunch and would see him sunning outside on the lawn. When the Bangkok resident descendent of Anna passed away, the manicured lawn was replaced by a high-rise office building.
Much has been written regarding the politics of Thailand and the fact that the Thai military have had a very strong hand in often thwarting the democratic process. In fact, the US Government usually turned a blind eye and supported the Thai military as best they could to suppress anything that could undermine the independence of the country. Moreover, Thailand is often placed in difficult positions such as the unpleasantness in nearby Myanmar to the west where they depend on natural gas to keep the lights on in Bangkok. Laos, to the north, is basically controlled by Beijing given the vast amount of debt they owe China. Recently, the first high speed train from China to Vientiane, Laos appeared on Thailand’s back doorstep. To the east, Cambodia has in effect become a vassal state of China. Therefore, I would say we have a difficult Chinese checkerboard in this region.
The US has clearly supported democratic movements in Thailand calling for free elections that come and go like the weather. Once held, they ultimately begin to unravel due to alleged corruption, to be followed by military coups. The Constitutional Monarchy concept began with just such a coup almost ninety years ago. In the mid-to-late sixties, a friend at an agency of the US Government led a massive program to distribute images of the King and Queen of Thailand to remote hill tribe villages in order to promote the concept of a country with a unifying force in the monarchy. Accordingly, we do and should support democracy in Thailand, but we must recognize that the form it takes is peculiarly Thai and we have had a strong hand in shaping it for the same ninety years it has been in existence.
Recently, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, shown below, postponed his first scheduled visit to Thailand because a member of the traveling US press tested positive for COVID-19. While his action is understandable, he needs to hop back on the airplane as soon as possible to make some merit with the Thai government as Emperor Xi is going full throttle to bring them into his camp. Colonel Chang of the Thai Communist Suppression Organization would turn over in his spiritual grave.