115. Letter From the Ambassador to Thailand (Unger) to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Green)1
Our projection of future developments in Thailand involves us at the very outset in consideration of developments in United States policy. The major developments in Thai foreign and defense policy which are now taking place are a direct reaction to changes and anticipated changes in U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia. These changes have been most apparent in the context of the Indochina war, particularly in our reaction to events in Laos and Cambodia. In addition, over the past year the insurgency has grown in terms of the strength of the insurgents, the areas affected and in the impact on national life. Furthermore, the Thai have become alarmed over adverse trends in their economic situation. Their economic difficulties have given stimulus to a new nationalist and restrictionist outlook, and have placed additional strains on the fledgling parliamentary system. Thailand faces a difficult period of adjustment over the next few years, and Thai leaders face difficult decisions if they are to meet urgent defense requirements without sacrificing development needs. While we are not, on balance, pessimistic in our general projection, we recognize that our ability to influence Thai decisions on these important issues is declining with the shift in U.S.—and Thai— policy. In reading what follows it should be borne in mind that there are differing trends and currents in the Thai leadership’s thinking and the issues identified are not necessarily seen in the same light by all.
Thailand is taking the first reluctant and tentative steps toward a partial disengagement from the close relationship with the U.S. which she has maintained over the past two decades. This process is painful to the Thai, but will doubtless continue—at a rate, I believe, closely related to the reduction of the American presence in Southeast Asia and of the credibility of the American commitment to Thailand.
Thai leaders have accepted the Nixon Doctrine as a reasonable and responsible statement of U.S. policy, but they are increasingly doubtful that the President will be able to carry out his policies in the face of political and especially Congressional resistance. As Deputy Prime Minister [Page 242] (and heir apparent) Praphat remarked when I presented him a copy of Secretary Rogers’ Foreign Policy Report 1969–70, Thai leaders find no fault whatever with statements of U.S. Policy—it is the implementation which sometimes troubles them.
Changes in U.S. policy, as they affect Thailand, have been revealed to the Thai most clearly in the context of the Indochina war, particularly in Laos and Cambodia, where the Thai see the U.S. ability to prosecute the war increasingly hedged in by Congressional restrictions. These restrictions alter the security situation for Thailand in basic ways, and have led the Thai to question the validity of the American commitment to Thailand.
In forward defense of their homeland, the Thai have been willing to commit forces in Vietnam and, covertly, in Laos. However, their involvement was undertaken with full U.S. backing and assistance, and with the expectation of U.S. support in the event the conflict should spread to threaten Thailand directly. This concept—of American support to enable a Southeast Asian country to go to the defense of a neighbor—had to be discarded when, after the conflict spread to Cambodia, the USG was legally constrained from supporting Thai military operations in Cambodia. As a result, the Thai increasingly question the possibility of our past partnership’s continuing. Although they still attach great value to the alliance, I think that in the future they will view with increasing care and skepticism any new American proposals for cooperative actions which would expose them to a potentially dangerous situation, unless they receive concrete evidence that adequate American support will be forthcoming.
On military matters, U.S.-Thai relations continue to reflect a high degree of cooperation, and I expect that this will generally continue to be the case with activities which the Thai consider to be directly related to their security. They recognize that U.S. military and economic assistance are needed to meet Thailand’s development and security problems. They also recognize the importance to Thailand of U.S. efforts to bring the Indonesia war to an acceptable conclusion, and in this context the still considerable U.S. military presence continues to be only a relatively minor source of friction. It will in the future be increasingly difficult, however, to secure Thai cooperation in nonmilitary areas, and even in some U.S. military activities in which the Thai do not consider that there is a mutual benefit. We are already feeling the effects of an increased Thai nationalism in our dealings with civilian branches of the RTG, and we expect that these frictions will increase. This could lead to acute issues between us and the RTG over the status of U.S. military personnel still stationed here.
Another rapidly emerging problem is that of drugs. We can expect strains in our relations as accusations are levelled at Thailand from the [Page 243]U.S. because of frustrations there over this tragic U.S. domestic problem and as we work with the RTG to try to control the traffic in drugs.
New Foreign Policy Directions
Disillusionment with the 20-year old relationship with the United States has led the Thai to consider new foreign policy directions—they are moving cautiously toward expanded trade and other relations with the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, they have made tentative overtures to initiate some kind of dialogue with Peking, and they have attempted exploratory talks seeking some way of reducing the hostility of North Vietnam. The Thai are, however, too realistic to abandon the protection which the remaining U.S. presence in Southeast Asia affords them, as the price of a risky accommodation with Peking.
We expect that the Thai will continue their role of active leadership in moves toward regionalism, especially in economic and social matters. I believe they will also emphasize the political aspects of regionalism, in an attempt to gain for Southeast Asia a measure of influence in international councils which can be attained only by joint action. On security issues, the essential and continuing Thai view is that, without the support of a major power, the military effectiveness of the nations of Southeast Asia would not be enhanced significantly through a regional alliance. They recognize that Japan is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, to play a major security role, although they view the expanding Japanese influence and participation in Southeast Asian affairs as largely inevitable and, on balance, in Thai interests.
Increasing pressures on the Thai economy will also be a key factor influencing Thai foreign policy, U.S.-Thai relations, Thai internal politics, and Thailand’s defense capabilities.
Thailand’s very substantial rate of economic growth during the decade of the 1960’s obscured from the Thai Government the pressing need to make changes in law and policy, and in its economic development strategy, if it were to sustain the rate of growth. Since 1965, however, earnings from some major commodity exports—principally rice, tin and rubber—have stagnated because of falling external demand and/or falling prices. By mid-1969 the softening markets for Thai exports, lower U.S. military expenditures, and reduced net inflows on capital account, together with a continuation of the heavy demand for imports which built up during the booming 60’s, combined to produce a sizeable balance of payments deficit and a consequent drawdown in Thai foreign exchange reserves. We anticipate continuing depressed markets for traditional Thai exports, and continuing reductions in U.S. military expenditures; thus we foresee no relief from the balance of payments disequilibrium for some time.[Page 244]
The Thai economy continues to be basically sound, but there is a growing urgency for government action to maximize inflow of foreign investment capital needed to spur industrial development, to maximize foreign exchange earnings, and to spur and diversify agricultural production. The immediate challenge is to accomplish this sufficiently within the next one or two years to reverse the downward trend in foreign exchange reserves, or at least stabilize them at a level above a danger point. The longer range challenge, of course, is to sustain growth so that Thai economic capabilities can support Thai defense needs and the educational, social and other developmental programs required, given the very high rate of population growth.
While the need for corrective action by the Thai Government is becoming increasingly urgent, we find that our ability to influence their decision is declining. This results from a number of factors including Thai attitudes toward the United States discussed above, increasing nationalism, and a scaling down and refocusing of our aid programs and other U.S. inputs into the economy.
Rice, rubber and tin, major Thai exports which are now suffering from depressed international markets, are all commodities on which U.S. Government actions—PL–480 sales and stockpile disposals— threaten (at least in Thai minds) to reduce Thai export earnings. Needless to say, it is extremely important for us to bear in mind not only the real economic effects our actions may have on Thailand, but also the effects such actions may have on overall Thai cooperation with us.
While the past two years have brought experience and increased self-confidence in their ability to work within a parliamentary government, the Thai have hardly begun to develop the political parties and other institutions needed to make a workable democratic political system. The parliamentary process frequently has been a source of irritation to the military men who still dominate the Council of Ministers, and few of them show a real understanding of its workings. However, the desire to be counted among the democratic countries of the world, shared by virtually all important groups and leaders in Thailand, continues to encourage leaders to work within the democratic process and to inhibit impulses toward drastic solutions.
Over the next two or three years, the economic difficulties Thailand is encountering will place increasing pressures on the parliamentary system. Members of Parliament are growing more vocal in their criticisms of government performance on economic problems, particularly the problems of the rice farmers who constitute over 80 percent of the Thai population. The issue will inevitably become more heated as the 1973 elections approach, and political considerations will weigh [Page 245]heavily in RTG decisions on economic problems. Thus political and economic pressures on the RTG will combine in a way likely to increase the irritation potential of the Thai parliamentary process, and this may inhibit rational economic decisions by the government.
The top leadership of the RTG will inevitably undergo some changes during the next few years. All of the key men are very near the same age and will soon reach sixty, the mandatory retirement age in both the military and civil service. It is virtually certain that Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn will not be Prime Minister after the elections in early 1973, and he may step down before that date. Deputy Prime Minister General Praphat Charusathien now seems to be the unchallenged heir apparent but he too is getting older. General Kris Sivara is waiting in the wings but age would make his tenure at most a brief one. Beyond that the picture is less clear. While any change of leadership is bound to involve a certain amount of maneuvering, the present leaders appear to have put trusted general and field grade officers into the key military positions, thus greatly reducing the uncertainties as to what group—if not which individual—is likely to succeed them.
Future difficulties, arising possibly from a depressed economic situation or an internal or external threat to Thai security, could at some point affect Thailand’s internal political stability. However, I believe the likelihood is that the changing of the guard that must come before too many years will be relatively smooth.
Communist insurgent capabilities and organization accelerated sharply over the past year. The most significant CPT gains have been the establishment in both the north and northeast of reasonably secure base areas for supply and training purposes, and the substantial upgrading of insurgent weaponry from external sources. These bases will facilitate more rapid insurgent expansion.
In the northeast, Communist cadre have undertaken a systematic expansion of party influence and control by organizing more formal village militia units, providing full-time presence in about 100 villages, and providing a recruiting and training ground for subsequent promotion upwards into local units and thence to hardcore regular “Thai People’s Liberation Armed Forces” (TPLAF). Government efforts to counter the insurgency have been weakened by lack of vigorous national policy direction, diversion of the leadership’s attention to threats to Thailand’s security from Cambodia and Laos, frictions between the major responsible elements of the RTG, lack of integrated planning and resource allocation, and—in some instances—poor performance on the ground because of inadequate training and leadership. Government countermeasures will probably limit CT growth to some extent, but [Page 246]will not contain it unless radically new measures of government organization are undertaken, and more consistent top-level attention is given to the insurgency.
- Source: National Archives, RG 59, Conference Files, 1966–1972: Lot 73 D 323, Folder 943. Secret.↩