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The United States’ Complicated Relationship with Thailand and Democracy

By Mike Rattanasengchanh, Ph.D. Candidate (Ohio University)

Picture: U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand in the Oval Office Dec. 14, 2001. The two leaders discussed economic issues and the war on terrorism

The United States has a long history of promoting democracy in Thailand. However, these efforts have frequently clashed with broader objectives of stability in the region. This essay draws on my dissertation (“Thai Hearts and Minds: The Public Diplomacy and Public Relations Programs of the United States Information Service and Thai Ministry of Interior, 1957 – 1979”)and its focus on the United States Information Service (USIS). Drawing parallels between challenges USIS faced in the 1960s and 70s, I argue that the United States’ efforts in response to the 2014 coup and subsequent violations of civil and political rights, as well to the current delay in the full release of the results of the March 24, 2019 election have been insufficient.


During the Cold War, the United States promoted American political and cultural ideas, including democracy, through the United States Information Service (USIS) as a means of stymieing communism throughout the world, with Thailand being one focus country. Building on then-prevalent social scientific theories[1], the U.S. government believed that if Thailand (and other developing nations) could simply adopt the American way of life, it would achieve modernity and prosperity. However, Washington and Bangkok’s concerns about broader political stability in the region sidelined these attempts by USIS at promoting democracy in Thailand. USIS did not push for immediate democratic reform and did not center many of its public diplomacy campaigns around liberal ideas. Rather, it used more subtle means, such as books and student and cultural exchanges, to propagate democracy and civil liberties. However, USIS, much like Washington and Bangkok, saw communism and instability as the major threats to Thailand and ultimately chose security over political reform. This same desire for stability and for maintaining good U.S.-Thai relations continues to stall the development of democracy today. Rather than communism, today’s major perceived threat takes the form of China, and U.S. fears about its growing influence – militarily, economically, and territorially – in Southeast Asia.

This essay draws significantly on my recently-defend dissertation entitled “Thai Hearts and Minds: The Public Diplomacy and Public Relations Programs of the United States Information Service and Thai Ministry of Interior, 1957 – 1979,” which examines how USIS, America’s chief propaganda organization during the Cold War, gave in to larger U.S. government security concerns, and abandoned the promoting of democracy as a major priority. Nevertheless, other USIS efforts propagated American political and cultural ideals through benign means. These efforts inadvertently influenced a whole generation of Thai students and intellectuals who then pushed for democratic change in the mid-1970s. The result was the kind of domestic instability that both U.S. and Thai leaders feared, making it easy for the threatened Thai political establishment to brand such political activity as communist to secure U.S. backing in crushing pro-democracy movements. Similar patterns in the relationship between U.S. and Thai governments continue today as the United States has worked with Prayuth Chan-o-cha in the pursuit of these two, often competing goals, of security and democracy.

USIS in Thailand

USIS, organized in 1934 as more of a U.S. domestic public relations group, became part of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953.[2]President Dwight Eisenhower established the USIA as a psychological means of meeting the threat of communism around the world. It used mass media, student and cultural exchanges, and information trainings to promote American ideals of democracy, capitalism, and modernization. Initially, Thai leaders such as Sarit Thanarat were suspicious of USIS work in Thailand. When Sarit came to power in 1957, he suspended civil liberties and threw out the constitution. USIS seemed to have little issue with the new Thai dictator though. One USIS chief in Thailand, Howard Garnish, explained how the mission dealt with the contradictions between the agency’s objectives and Sarit’s regime. When it came to publicizing American political culture and presidential elections, Garnish said the post “had to use some tact because” the government “had suspended” elections and other democratic-type activities.[3]Instead, it focused on information about famous American political leaders, historical events, education, and the electoral process. Rarely did the public diplomacy campaigns urge rapid political change from military dictatorship to full democracy. Most USIS goals for Thailand centered on strategic issues rather than on political liberalism. U.S. public diplomacy officials did not want to pose any threat to Sarit but sought good relations and to help stabilize his regime. USIS and the U.S. government were supporting a regime that was undemocratic and suppressed civil liberties in the name of fighting communism. From 1957 onward, USIS would continue to promote anti-communism and modernity in Thailand while shying away from encouraging democratic change.

One major way USIS and the United States built relations with the Thai people was through student and cultural exchanges. In Total Cold War, historian Kenneth A. Osgood discusses how personal interactions between individuals, both leaders and private citizens, were important to Eisenhower’s psychological strategy during the Cold War.[4]In 1958, Sarit established the General Education Development Program to train a population that could modernize Thailand. It was also a means of indoctrination.[5]Part of the initiative was for the Thai government to utilize the U.S. Fulbright Exchange program. Thousands of Thai students traveled abroad for training in civil service and bureaucratic protocol. Others went for education. USIS helped train Thai government officials for the newly established Thai School of Public Relations and Communications.[6]In 1961, USIS mission chief Howard Garnish reported that the exchange program “continues to be the most effective means” of training future influential Thais.[7]Garnish further explained that many of the students returned to take positions “of influence and prestige” in the Cabinet, Privy Council (King Bhumibol’s advisory committee), and Supreme Court, and as editors, writers, and educators. Other students took jobs as technocrats and military officers.[8]Two recipients of the Fulbright program went on to write editorials in two Thai newspapers condemning international communism. The United States was trying to mold Thailand’s government bureaucracies, institutions, and education systems after its own. However, when it came to academics, the influence of U.S. educators was limited as the military government tried to restrict and censor free speech and other civil liberties.

USIS offered training programs and Foreign Leader Grants for individuals to study in America and attend leadership seminars throughout Thailand. One example was Supat Wongwatana, the governor of Sakol Nakorn, an area in the northeast that was experiencing communist activity in 1962. Garnish said that the Thai government saw “great potential in him” and that his “continued support of US program activities in his area could be insured” because of the award.[9]Because of their position in village society, local leaders were crucial for USIS-Thai public relations programs. They would become important contacts at the local level to help propagate government messages and extend the political influence of Bangkok.

USIS established the Bi-National Center (BNC) in Bangkok as one facility that provided English language courses and showcased American culture in the country. One report stated that “the membership and patronage” of the center consisted mostly of Thais from USIS target audience.[10]The primary focus groups for the English teaching program were educators, government officials, university students, military personnel, and former exchange students. USIS thought that the BNC had advanced the objectives of educating Thai leaders and “fostering the image of the U.S. as a strong and dependable ally of Thailand.”[11]Furthermore, the center was an “avenue of informal communication between Americans and Thai leaders.”[12]In their eyes, the BNC was a means of indirectly managing the opinions of educated Thais.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Graham Martin (1963-67) saw English language teaching as an important tool in America’s ability to influence the Thai people. In a letter to Lucius D. Battle, assistant secretary of state for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Martin argued that having Thais learn English was “a foreign policy instrument.”[13]He went on to say that English should:

“Provide easier access for the Thai to Western technological and educational knowledge, to orient Thai to the political, social, and economic ideals of the Free World…to improve communication in the lower echelons between representatives of Thailand and her western allies, and to open a major avenue of communication with the youth and future as a second language.”[14]

USIS also facilitated the growth of English teaching through radio and television programs. English would open doors to better relations via education, person-to-person interactions, and the sharing of political ideas. USIS was not the only organization involved in cultural exchanges and English teaching; other groups included the Peace Corps, the American Field Service, and a host of non-government groups. However, USIS was a part of the U.S. foreign policymaking process and formally represented the government. It was one of the main government mechanisms for transmitting American ideas and culture to the Thai people.

Thais Seek Political Change

One result of the cultural and political interactions between Americans and USIS with the Thai people was that it helped create a generation of western-educated students and intellectuals who wanted political change. Those who returned from abroad were infused with American ideas of democracy, liberalism, elections, and civil liberties. What the students saw in Thailand contradicted what they had learned from the universities, literature, and American intellectuals. In the late 1960s, students began to formally organize themselves to speak out against the military government under Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charisathien. The students wanted a constitution, elections, and more freedoms. Then in October of 1973, thousands of students, intellectuals, and even labor workers took to the streets demanding political change. The military government responded with violence and it was only the intervention of the monarchy that ended the bloodshed. This event ushered in Thailand’s democratic experiment. Unfortunately, democracy was short-lived. On October 6, 1976, the military returned to power with help from the monarchy.

The role of the United States in the upheavals of 1973 and more so in that of 1976 was indirect. In U.S. Foreign Policy and Thai Military Rule, Surachart Bamrungsuk, draws a connection between U.S. military aid and the many right-wing groups. Surachart argues that the weaponry, technology, and training provided by the United States “amounted to an indirect intervention, since some categories of U.S. military aid such as police equipment [like walkie-talkies] could be used against the mass demonstrations.”[15]There could be some truth to Surachart’s assertions. The parent organizations of the Village Scouts, Red Gaur, and Navapol was the Border Patrol Police, co-founded, funded, and trained by the Central Intelligence Agency and United States military. Other scholars make little to no reference to whether or not the United States had any influence at all.[16]What many academics cite is that U.S. military aid played a profound impact, as it empowered the Thai military government and its security forces to govern with little popular input. From Sarit to Thanom and Praphat, military dictators ruled dictatorially, limiting democratic reform and ruling with no constitution. By propping up the Sarit and Thanom-Praphat regimes, the U.S. had helped to stymie the political reform for which the students and others had protested.

Some Thai scholars point to the U.S. cultural exchanges and interactions as the subtle building blocks that eventually led to the 1973 and 1976 student uprisings.[17]Accounts from USIS officials seem to support the Thai academics. During an interview, USIS Student Affairs Officer Frank Coward was asked if USIS had contributed to the student movement, to which he answered, “I would think they did in just the experience of association….”[18]Through his many contacts and experiences, Coward noticed “that the Thais had had a love affair with democratic action for years, but it was always offset by a military preponderant that was the other foot.” U.S. embassy Political Officer, Victor L. Tomseth wrote that the 1960s saw huge advances in education and economics in Thailand. Thousands of students went abroad, specifically to the United States on exchange programs sponsored by USIS. Thousands of others learned English and visited exhibits and lectures at the BNC. Many of these graduates became teachers influenced and educated in western thought who then disseminated political ideas to the students.[19]Many wanted Thailand to have some of the same political liberties. USIS and the U.S. government influenced a generation of thinkers and eventual activists against a regime that did not live up to the ideals of democracy and liberalism. The goal of U.S. public diplomacy was to propagate western ideas in favor of communism, but USIS did not realize that it might lead to the overthrow of America’s allied government. It did not predict that Thai students would critique their own government and push for reforms based on principles learned from the west.

Thailand’s 2014 Coup

Fast forward to May 2014 and the USIS is dissolved in 1999. When Prayuth orchestrated a coup against democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the United States still had trouble trying to reign in the military from intervening politically. Military and palace leaders feared that Yingluck’s government and supporters (mostly from rural areas) would shift the political balance of power in their favor. Some Thais supported the intervention of the king and military, viewing Yingluck’s government as corrupt and anti-monarchy. The military tried to shield itself from criticism by maintaining that it was trying to protect the monarchy. Prayuth cracked down on the opposition, jailing hundreds and restricting civil liberties.

The coup put the United States in a complicated position between trying to uphold its liberal values while also trying to stabilize the region. The U.S. government chose the moral road and responded by briefly suspending $4.7 million in military aid, about half of the annual assistance. The aid included firearms and training in the United States for Thai police officers. In addition, Washington threatened to cancel the annual joint military exercise called Cobra Gold for 2015.[20]Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his disappointment about the coup and concern for the unlawful detention of opposition politicians.[21]However, the United States did not call off the exercises, instead downgrading them by only sending lower-level military officials. In addition, President Barack Obama decided to continue giving military aid, explaining that he wanted to maintain relations with Thailand to meet China’s growing power.[22]Clearly, Washington feared pushing Bangkok into Beijing’s hands. Even with the tensions and dispute over human rights violations, both governments maintained good relations.[23]

The United States and Thailand Since the 2014 Coup

President Donald Trump’s administration has slowly tried to rebuild U.S.-Thai relations after tensions resulting from the 2014 Prayuth coup. Though his trip was planned before Trump became president, in February 2017 Admiral Harry B. Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, visited Thailand to start the Cobra Gold military training and to begin renormalizing relations. Admiral Harris stated that the United States wanted Thailand to reinstitute democracy as soon as possible so that it could “be a strong stable partner” in the region.[24]However, it seemed that the admiral did not push very hard. As Prayuth said, Washington “accepted Thailand’s strategic plans and just wanted to see fair and honest elections.” According to available sources, Harris did not use military aid as a bargaining chip. Months later, it looked as if U.S.-Thai military relations had improved dramatically. When the admiral spoke before the House Armed Services Committee on February 14, 2018, he said, “Our alliance is back on track on senior levels” and military activities were “on a positive trajectory.”[25]Harris ended his report on Thailand by saying that keeping communication channels open with the military government would the United States’ goals of regional security and promoting democracy. It looked the Trump administration wanted to play the long game by being patient with the Thai government.

The March 24, 2019 Elections

In the most recent Thai election on March 24, 2019, the United States’ pushed, though lightly, for the Thai government to reinstitute democracy. The U.S. Department of State issued a statement applauding the Thai people for voting in the election and saying that the relative freedom of debate and media coverage was a sign of some democratic progress.[26]However, it also urged those in charge of the election process to be “fair and transparent” in investigating any discrepancies. The outcome that the United States government seems to want is to let the results speak for themselves, whether they are in favor of the Pheu Thai Party or the military led by Prayuth. It will be interesting to see the official election results and if the military reasserts its power and clamps down on the opposition. If so, it is hard to tell how the Trump administration will react. It could threaten to cut security assistance, but this might risk ostracizing Thailand, forcing it into the hands of the Chinese. Bangkok has struck deals with China and Russia over some military weaponry. The United States will have to balance geostrategic concerns with promoting liberalism; security may again trump the development of democracy in Thailand.



[1]Seymour Martin Lipset, (March 1959), "Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy" The American Political Science Review53 (1): 69–105.

[2]USIA is known as USIS overseas.

[3]“Telegram from USIS Bangkok to USIA Washington,” November 25, 1960, Subject: USIS Treatment of US Elections, p. 1, GRUSIA, RG 306, Office of Research, Country Project Correspondence, 1952-1959, Box 20, Entry A1 1021, National Archives in College Park, Maryland (NACP).

[4]Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad(Lawrence, University of Kansas, 2006), 193, 209.

[5]Fred von der Mehden, “The Military and Development in Thailand,” Journal of Comparative AdministrationVol. 2 (Nov. 1970): 326.

[6]“Telegram from USIS Bangkok to USIA Washington,” November 7, 1961, Subject: USIS Country Plan, p. 7, Dispatch # 12, GRUSIA, RG 306, Information Center Service/Cultural Operations Division, Far Eastern Libraries and Centers Branch: Country Files, 1947-1965, Box 87, Entry P 51, NACP.

[7]“Telegram from USIS Bangkok to USIA Washington,” February 14, 1961, Subject: Country Assessment Report, p. 12,Dispatch # 42, GRUSIA, RG 306, Foreign Service Dispatches, 1954-1965, Asia, Box 2, Entry 1047, NACP.

[8]Frank C. Darling, “American Policy in Thailand,” The Western Political Quarterly15, No. 1 (March 1962): 99-100.

[9]“Telegram from Bangkok Embassy to State Department in Washington,” April 4, 1962, Subject: Educational and Cultural Exchanges, Mr. Supat, p. 1, Dispatch # 421, GRUSIA, RG 306, Information Center Service/English Teaching Division, Country Files, 1955-1965, Lebanon - E.T. thru Chile E.T., Box 8, Entry P 79, NACP.

[10]“Telegram from USIS Bangkok to USIA Washington,” April 3, 1963, Subject: Evaluation of Binational Center, p. 1,Message 62, GRUSIA, RG 306, Subject Files, 1953-1967, Box 45, Entry A1 56, NACP.

[11]Ibid., p. 2.

[12]Ibid., p. 3.

[13]“Letter from Ambassador Graham to Lucius D. Battle,” November 22, 1963, p. 1, GRDS, RG 59 Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, Office of the Country Director for Thailand, Records Relating to Thailand, 1964-1966, Box 1, Entry A1 5310, NACP.


[15]Surachart Bamrungsuk, U.S. Foreign Policy and Thai Military Rule, 1947-1977(Bangkok, Editions Duangkamol, 1988), 180. According to Surachart, the RTG made it illegal to possess a walkie-talkie. See also, Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 191; John L.S. Girling, Thailand, Society and Politics(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981); Paul M. Handley, The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej(Yale University Press: New Haven, 2006), 194; om Marks, Making Revolution: The Insurgency of the Communist Party of Thailand in Structural Perspective(Bangkok: White Lotus, 1994), 87-88; Katherine Bowie, Rituals of National Loyalty: An Anthropology of the State and the Village Scout Movement in Thailand(New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 16, 66-67, 74-75.

[16]Joseph J. Wright Jr., The Balancing Act: A History of Modern Thailand(California: Pacific Rim Press, 1991); R. Sean Randolph, The United States and Thailand: Alliance Dynamics, 1950-1985(Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1986), 167-168.

[17]Baker and Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, p. 167; Charles F. Keyes, Thailand, Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State(Boulder: Westview Press, 1986), 82-83.

[18]Frank P. Coward Interview, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training,, [accessed 9/21/2016].

[19]Memo from Tomseth to Dexter, November 2, 1973, Subject: the 1973 Revolution in Thailand, p. 1-3, RG 59 General Records of the Department of State, Subject Files of the Office of Thailand and Burma Affairs, 1963-1975, Box # 14, Entry 5416, NACP.

[20]“Thai-U.S. Launch Cobra Gold Military Exercises Amid Tensions over Coup,” Military Times, February 9, 2015, [accessed 2/19/2019].

[21]“U.S. Condemns Thai Takeover as a Coup, Leaving Aid in Question,” Time, May 22, 2014,, [accessed 4/2/2019].

[22]“Thailand’s Aid: The U.S. Ignores the Law on Military Funding,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 27, 2016, [accessed 2/19/2019].

[23]Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Moving the U.S.-Thailand Alliance Forward,” August 7, 2018,[accessed 2/19/2019]; see also, Panu Wongcha-um, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, and Donna Airoldi, “Trump-Prayuth Meet to Seal Normalization of Thai-U.S. Relations,” Reuters, September 29, 2017, [accessed 2/19/2019].

[24]“U.S. Admiral Stresses Democracy at Thai War Games,” World News, Jutarat Skulpichetrat, February 14, 2017,, [accessed 4/3/2019].

[25]“Statement of Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command before The House Armed Services Committee on U.S. Pacific Command Posture,” February 14, 2018, p. 42,, [accessed 4/3/2019].

[26]“Statement by Robert Palladino, Deputy Spokesperson,” U.S. Department of State, March 26, 2019,, [accessed 4/3/2019].


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