Throwing Thailand Into A Hybrid War Tumult

Published date13 August 2016
Publication titleASEAN Tribune

13 August 2016 (Global Research) Thailand is the most crucial country in mainland ASEAN's current geopolitical framework, bringing together the infrastructural interests of China, India, and Japan, and also being a sizzling political battleground between the US and China. It has a strong and stable economy (the largest in ASEAN behind Indonesia), and its centrally positioned population of nearly 70 million people outnumbers those in neighboring Laos, Cambodia, and the eastern region of Myanmar. With centuries of rich history behind it, Thailand is also one of the region's civilizational leaders, but unlike contemporary Laos and Cambodia, it actually has the means with which to project its soft power and promote its political interests abroad. Ironically, however, just as much as the idea of civilization is a potentially unifying element for Thai society, it could also lead to its ultimate unravelling if this three-pronged concept is undermined in any significant way. Should naturally occurring, provoked, and/or manufactured factors negatively impact on the monarchy, military, and/or the idea of Central Thai-led 'Thaification', then Thailand could easily slide into a period of internal pandemonium that might reverse its leading regional status, subvert some or all of its planned transnational integrational projects, and might even lead to its partial territorial disintegration.

The geopolitical significance of Thailand cannot be overstated. The country's dual maritime and mainland identities allow it to exert influence in either direction, and by tangential extent, so too can its premier allies. For decades, the US had used Thailand as a springboard for promoting its unipolar interests deeper into the heart of mainland ASEAN, but with Prime Minister Prayun Chan-o-cha's decisive pivot towards China, Beijing can now reversely utilize its strategic advances in the country in order to acquire unrestricted access to the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, China isn't the only country that has identified Thailand's geopolitical potential, since both India and Japan are partnering with it in order to construct their own transnational connective infrastructure projects, the ASEAN Highway and the East-West Corridor, respectively. In the case of the latter two, their combined projects create the possibility of linking both of the Indochinese Peninsula's coasts, which would of course complicate China's multilateral economic diplomacy with the subregion via the ASEAN Silk Road. Finally, Thailand is a distinct civilizational center in mainland Southeast Asia that has previously been a force of strength and stability, and the undermining of its unifying identity of Thaification and its structural support mechanisms of the military and monarchy, no matter in which manner this may be, could create a burst of chaotic energy that collapses Thailand's multipolar bridgehead potential and converts it into a geopolitical sinkhole.

The book's research on Thailand begins by commencing a speedy overview of the country's history, regretfully glossing over some of the finer elements of its past in favor of offering a concise synopsis most pertinent to the topic at hand. The work then identifies Thailand's leading historical themes and explains their relevancy to the present. The final part of the study elaborates on the three interlaced Hybrid War threats afflicting Thailand and games out various scenarios for how they could unfold.

Building 'The Land Of Smiles'

Regional Engagement And Territorial Retreat:

The modern-day territory of Thailand has historically played a very influential role in regional affairs, either as an important component of other empires (the Khmer Empire, Lan Xang, and the Burmese Toungoo and Konbaung Dynasties) or a center of power in its own right (the Rattanakosin Kingdom). Whether it was on the receiving or promoting end of regional influence, its centrally positioned location made it indispensable in facilitating engagement between the various powers and peoples of mainland Southeast Asia, and this geopolitical constant has remained in force up until the present. Furthermore, Thailand's role was heightened by the 'mandala' model of political relations that prevailed prior to the region's colonial period, which saw civilizational cores radiating their influence and authority, sometimes even with geographically overlapping results with neighboring rivals. The interests of Burma (as scholars casually refer to what is now known as Myanmar during that time), Lan Xang, and the Khmer Empire thus intersected over contemporary Thai territory and the 'mandala' of Ayutthaya (located north of Bangkok), stimulating a unique centuries-long civilizational engagement between these diverse actors and underlining the hub role that Thailand has traditionally fulfilled.

Ayutthaya Kingdom

Ayutthaya Kingdom

To begin describing some general points of Thai history, the modern-day state's progenerator was the Ayutthaya Kingdomthat existed from 1351-1767, and just like the Rattanakosin Kingdom that would later succeed it in 1782 after a brief regency transition to the Thonburi Kingdom, it had its fair share of territorial ebbs and flows. Its full history is quite detailed, but as a cursory summary, it promoted its interests eastward at the expense of the Khmer Empire but was later ransacked and destroyed by the invading Burmese Toungoo and Konbaung Dynasties from the west. All told, there were 20 different wars between Siam and Burma throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, representing a staggeringly high incidence of conflict between these two neighbors. While the historical memory of this rivalry still partially remains in each country's contemporary psyche, it's obviously no longer as influential of a force as it once was, although it could possibly be revived by either side for domestic political purposes and/or provoked from abroad to achieve certain geostrategic ends.

The Rattanakosin Dynasty that rose from the ashes of the Ayutthaya and Thonburi Kingdoms succeeded in halting the Burmese blitzkrieg and generally stabilizing its western frontier. This allowed it to more forcefully expand eastwards and incorporate the lands of the weakened Lan Xang into its empire and begin making concentrated moves against the Khmer. By the early 1800s, however, Vietnam had completed its incorporation of the southern Champa Kingdom and the Khmers' holdings along the Mekong Delta via its Nam tiến ('southern advance'), thus placing it into direct rivalry with Siam for control over the rest of Cambodia. The two expansionist states of Siam and Vietnam inevitably ended up clashing over the Cambodian lands that were caught between them, bringing the two to war in 1831-1834 and 1841-1845. France began its imperial occupation of Indochina shortly thereafter through the 1858 invasion of Cochinchina (the area around contemporary Vietnam's Mekong Delta) and its 1863 'protectorate' over Cambodia, the latter of which pushed back against Siam's interests and put the French military directly along its southeastern border.

French imperial expansionism had its next major spurt during the 1893 Franco-Siamese War when Paris was successfully able to wrest control over most of Laos. Right around this time the UK also took the initiative in bringing the remaining Shan States in then-Burma under its control, thus cutting off what had earlier been Siam's northern border with China. The French finalized their imperial frontier with Siam from 1904-1907, and right afterwards the British pressured Bangkok into acceding to the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty that surrendered the latter's control over some of its southern Malay-populated territories. The combined French and British moves from the past half century were interpreted as a massive humiliation for Siam, albeit ones that were seen as strategically necessary in order to retain the Kingdom's formal independence. Both imperial powers envisioned Siam functioning as a neutral geopolitical buffer between them, and for the most part, it played this role quite well. However, the territorial losses that multiethnic Siam suffered during this time in what are now modern-day Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia would play into the nationalist hands of World War II leader Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) and inspire the country that he had renamed 'Thailand' to side with fascist Japan.

Thaification, Phibun, And World War II:

Siam experienced a swift military coup in 1933 that degraded the absolute power of the monarchy and led to quasi-democratic advancements. This event is notable because it was the first of many forthcoming significant times that the military would intervene in domestic political affairs, as has since regularly happened in the decades afterwards. In the years following the coup, the state began to accentuate its majority-Thai ethnic identity, particularly focusing on the Central Thais as the cultural core of this movement. At the time, a multitude of ethnic minorities still resided within Siam's borders, although they weren't as numerous or geographically concentrated as they previously were when the country controlled Laos and Cambodia, for example. Nonetheless, in the prevailing nationalist zeitgeist that was sweeping the world in the 1930s, Siam felt compelled to exercise its own version of these ideals, and the legacy of this initiative has continued into the present. It'll later be described how the Laotian-affiliated Thai nationals of Northeastern Thailand ('Isan') are ethnically, culturally, linguistically, and historically distinct from their Central Thai counterparts, but at this moment of time, it's enough for the reader to understand that there were strong enough ethno-regional disparities in Siam to somewhat warrant the authorities' belief that an identity-unifying program was necessary.

The concept of Central Thai nationalism was enthusiastically promulgated by Field Marshal Phibun after he ascended to power in...

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