This time, I have picked Thailand, neither as a popular tourist destination nor ASEAN’s top industrial base, but as a nation that has deftly kept its independence through periods of colonialism, two world wars, and the cold war. Why am I interested in this aspect of Thailand? I would like to find out what lessons we can learn from them.
First, let’s take a close look at a map of the area. Thailand borders with four countries: Cambodia to the south east, Laos to the east, Myanmar to the west, and Malaysia to the south. You can notice that their border are complex, seem to be without straight lines, as they meander through low lands, mountains, and along big rivers. The borders reflect centuries of power struggles in the region.
Looking back at their history (after the Ninth Century), big and influential dynasties like the Bagan and Tanugu dynasties in Myanmar, Ayutaya in Thailand, and Angkor in Cambodia fought one another, conquering or losing from time to time. Then, the Great Powers came into the picture; the French colonized Indo-China. Subsequently, they forced the Thais to cede south eastern parts of their lands (that included world famous Angkor Vat) to Indo-China in a 1907 treaty. In return, Thailand secured its independence.
Again taking a close look at the map, one might say that Thailand was geo-politically well located to be the least in the way of the British Empire whose primary interest was India, and the French for Indo-China.
Turning to World War II, the Thais became an ally of the Japanese and logistically supported the Japanese troops that invaded southwards to Malaysia and then Singapore, and westwards to Burma. On the other hand, there was a so-called “Free Thailand” movement especially among the Thai expatriates. So, stressing on the latter fact, the Thais dexterously managed to avoid being a defeated axis country when the war finally came to an end in August 1945.
During the cold war Thailand steered itself to keep out of the threat from neighboring socialist states: Laos and Cambodia. Perhaps, Thailand was fortunate in that it did not border with mighty Communist China.
It is evident that those specific maneuvers by the Thais whenever they encountered paramount dangers have kept them their independence and thus led them to today’s affluence as a top ASEAN nation.
A happy ending? Not quite, as a matter of fact Thailand does have border problems with neighboring countries: Laos (there was an “undeclared war” between the countries in 1987 over disputed villages), Cambodia (several clashes over a new world heritage site on the disputed border) and with Myanmar (border clashes over Burmese minorities who have been suffering from constant persecution by their military rulers).
In my opinion, I would like to see that Thailand takes the initiative in solving the problems based on their wisdom of dealing with opponents; at this time Thailand is stronger than its neighbors, so it has to take a different approach. One solution might be some joint development projects over the disputed areas: instead of guns and bombs, why not cash from Thailand aiming at achieving sustainable peace in the region. I hope this will be the lesson they learn.