May 21, 2016 was a historical day for American-Vietnamese relations. Four decades after the end of the brutal Vietnam War, Barack Obama was the first US president to have visited the Southeast Asian nation and fully normalised diplomatic relations.
Much has already been written about American’s misguided foreign policy during the Cold War in Southeast Asia, primarily driven by hysterical fear of Communism after Mao Zedong’s victory in China in 1949.
While both the US and Vietnam had moved on from the war and started a new chapter of their diplomatic relations, Thailand did not. We did not move on because those that benefited from the war – at the expense of Thai democracy and countless lives of our Southeast Asian neighbours – are still in power.
Thailand’s role in the Vietnam War as an American military outpost is well documented. Nonetheless, Thailand’s direct relations with Vietnam is often overlooked. Although there were occasionally skirmishes between Siam and Vietnam during the pre-colonial era, there were no lingering animosity.
While Siam was able to maintain semi-autonomy, Vietnam was colonized by the French. For over 7 decades, there was no Siam/Thailand-Vietnamese relations because Vietnam was a part of French Indochina.
It will not be until the end of World War II that any significant relations between Thailand and Vietnam took place. The destruction of the war significantly weakened the French and British position, providing a window of opportunity for figures like Ho Chi Minh to rally for independence from France. Pridi Banomyong, at the same time, led Thailand’s post-war recovery efforts after successfully overthrowing Plaek Phibunsongkram’s government that sided with Imperial Japan. It was Pridi and the post-war leaders that recognized the benefits of American hegemony.
During the war, M.R. Seni Pramoj famously refused to carry out Plaek’s order to declare war on America when he was stationed as Thai ambassador to America. Pridi, meanwhile, was in charge of organising local resistant forces, which allowed America to channel its support through M.R. Seni to Pridi. So when Pridi’s government came to power after the war, the American-Thai relation was strengthened.
During the war, President Franklin D Roosevelt was sympathetic to Vietnamese Nationalist Movement and determined to prevent post-war resumption of French rule. But his death in 1945 resulted in a major policy U-Turn.
Under the leadership of President Truman, communism became a major threat and Vietnam’s pro-independence leaders were seen as communists. Any American support to Vietnamese independence movement then quickly dissipated, paving the path for the return of French rule and pushing Vietnamese leaders over to the Soviet’s sphere of influence.
Therefore, when Pridi continued to secretly aid Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam’s struggle for independence, in weaponry and in providing safety shelter, America clearly upset with Pridi and his government. Additionally, Pridi’s preference for socialist style economic policy put himself at odds with America’s foreign policy apparatus.
The Thai nobility, which used their involvement with Seri-Thai to return to the scenes of Thai politics, then used this opportunity to form yet another unlikely coalition with Plaek. The death of Rama VIII was also an opportune moment for the Democrat Party under the leadership of Seni Pramoj to sabatoge Pridi’s credibility by accusing Pridi of being the responsible for the assassination. When Phin Choonhavan, Plaek’s ally, conducted a coup in 1947 to overthrow Thawan Thamrongnawasawat, Pridi’s ally, America was more than willing to stand idly by. This is the day Thai democratic aspiration died and when the country started its path to become America’s ally in the struggle against communism in Southeast Asia.
After Phin’s coup, power eventually found its way back to Plaek, who resumed his premiership in 1948. Although America did not have any issue supporting authoritarian regimes around the world, they were uneasy with Plaek’s history that sided with imperial Japan and his nationalist tendencies. So when the opportunity finally arose in 1957, America was more than ready to support Sarit Thanarat to overthrow Plaek. Under Sarit the waning monarchy was reinforced – seen as an effective buffer against the appeals of communism. American commitment to the regime brought in investments in projects such as Mittraphap Road in 1965, U-Tapao Airport and Sattahip Deep Sea Port in 1966.
With all the chips in place, America then supported its authoritarian ally with propaganda campaigns to legitimize its ally’s rule. The role of Psychological Strategy Board (PSB), created under President Truman, played an instrumental role in this effort. They created what proved to be a carefully crafted propaganda and public relations campaign that restored the prestige of Thai monarchy through Rama IX.
America’s direct intervention in Indochina would not only destroy countless lives in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, it also killed our democracy.
Scaremongering tactics in the form of impending communist invasion and anti monarchist uprising have since then been systematically used by the Thai state to suppress political enemies up to today. It has never been about national security, but rather a protection of political domination.
The hostility between Thailand and Vietnam during the Cold War is not the product of a conflict between the two nations, people or culture but rather an uncompromising standpoint of two world orders which resulted in a proxy war in Indochina.
With the notable exception of Chatchai Choonhavan, Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra governments, Thai politics has been played out under the shadow of the monarchy-military alliance ever since the Vietnam War.
This coalition has proven time and again throughout history that they are willing to do whatever it takes to suppress democracy. They are willing to use defamation, intimidation and violent tactics to suppress any democratic movement, such as those in 14 October 1973, 6 October 1976, May 1992, April 2010 and today in 2020.
Their profession that they want democracy is as transparent as it is fake. They have never stood for democracy, and they never will. They will not let this country move on like Vietnam and America did because it is against their interest to do so.