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Cablegate: Scenesetter for Senator Webb's Visit to Thailand

VZCZCXRO4569
OO RUEHCHI RUEHCN RUEHDT RUEHHM
DE RUEHBK #3632/01 3470914
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 120914Z DEC 08
FM AMEMBASSY BANGKOK
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5366
INFO RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC
RUEKJCS/CJCS WASHDC
RHHMUNA/USCINCPAC HONOLULU HI
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 BANGKOK 003632

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR H AND EAP/MLS, PLS PASS TO SENATOR WEBB

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL MARR MOPS PINS TH
SUBJECT: SCENESETTER FOR SENATOR WEBB'S VISIT TO THAILAND

1. (SBU) Senator Webb, Embassy Bangkok looks forward to
welcoming you to Thailand. Your visit will afford a chance
to express the United States' commitment to working with a
democratically-elected Thai government and to affirming U.S.
commitment to the bilateral relationship, particularly our
important military alliance, at a time of political
uncertainty and transition in Thailand.

ENDURING BILATERAL RELATIONSHIP
-------------------------------

2. (SBU) The Thai public closely watched our recent
Presidential election, and the results received much scrutiny
regarding the potential impact on U.S.-Thai relations. Thai
government officials have expressed strong interest in
hearing assessments of the transition to a new administration
and U.S. policy towards Southeast Asia. We have stressed to
the Thai we do not anticipate significant changes in our
bilateral relationship due to the history and strength of our
alliance and the nature of long-standing U.S.-Thai security,
economic, and cultural bonds. However, the changing
generations in both Thailand and the U.S. require both sides
work hard to maintain the vibrancy in the relationship.

THAI POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT - YELLOW AND RED
-------------------------------------------

3. (SBU) The recent dissolution of the People's Power Party
(PPP) and the fall of the government of former PM Somchai has
appeared to quiet, even if only temporarily, the political
situation. Gone are the street protests by the
anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) which
shut down Bangkok's airports for a week and occupied the
formal seat of government for over three months. But the
basic deep split in society and the body politic remains,
with the traditional royalist elite, urban middle class,
Bangkok, and the south on one side ("yellow" in shorthand)
and the political allies of ex-PM Thaksin, currently a
fugitive abroad, along with largely rural supporters in the
North and Northeast ("red") on the other.

4. (SBU) The Parliament is likely to elect a Prime Minister
on December 15; for the moment, negotiations between various
political factions continue. Calling a new election does not
appear to be a viable solution to political divide, and
political turmoil could very well persist for years. The
steadiest figure on the political stage the past four months
has been Army Commander Anupong Paochinda, who has
steadfastly rejected pressure from both sides for the army to
intervene in the political stalemate, either to conduct a
coup d'etat or to clear the streets of protesters. We
continue to stress to Thai interlocutors the negative
ramifications of a coup and the need for all parties to avoid
violence and respect democratic norms within the framework of
the constitution and rule of law.

5. (SBU) King Bhumibol turned 81 on December 5. Many had
anticipated his commentary for his annual address to the
nation on the eve of his birthday; his address was canceled,
however, after he fell ill with bronchitis. The Palace has
since announced the King's recovery. The King was
hospitalized for a period of weeks in late 2007 and has
appeared frail in some recent public appearances. The King's
passing, whenever that may be, will shock Thailand. Crown
Prince Vajiralongkorn is the King's designated heir.
However, the current King's enormous personal prestige, the
lack of a precedent for royal succession during the modern
era (King Bhumibol has been on the throne since 1946), and
changing sentiment about the role of the institution in the
21st century suggest that the transition will be difficult.

THAI ECONOMY STRUGGLES TO OVERCOME CHALLENGES
---------------------------------------------

6. (SBU) Over the past few years, Thailand's economy has been
growing at a moderate pace, though the long-running political
uncertainty has stifled domestic investment, hamstrung
government stimulus programs, and kept Thailand from keeping
up with other ASEAN nations. The worldwide economic slowdown
of recent months has hit Thailand particularly hard as
exports, the one bright spot in GDP growth, have fallen,
causing growth forecasts for 2009 to be ratcheted down from

BANGKOK 00003632 002 OF 002


4% to less than 2%. This dreary scenario was made much worse
by the November airport closures, which devastated Thailand's
large tourism and convention industries just at the beginning
of the high season.

7. (SBU) Historically, Thailand's economy has hummed along
unaffected by frequent political squabbling, but the recent
willingness of political actors to take actions that clearly
damage the economy and the nation's international image is
changing that tenet. Thailand's largest foreign investors,
Japanese in particular, have expressed deep dismay at the new
turn in events. The effect of the airport closures has not
yet shown up in the data, but FDI (especially from the U.S.)
was already trending down for 2008.

8. (SBU) On other issues of bilateral interest, the U.S. and
Thailand have extensive cooperation in medical research;
several important breakthroughs in AIDS treatment, for
example, have been developed here. Thailand has made great
strides in dealing with child prostitution and other labor
abuse issues, but trafficking-in-persons continues to be a
challenge given Thailand's geographic position as a transport
hub surrounded by poor countries and a history of weak law
enforcement. While Thailand has developed the infrastructure
to support intellectual property rights, enforcement, again,
is weak.

IMPORTANT MILITARY ENGAGEMENT PROGRAM
-------------------------------------

9. (SBU) By means of access to good military base
infrastructure and large areas to conduct almost unrestricted
operations, Thailand gives the U.S. military a platform for
exercises unique in Asia. Thai leaders are far more willing
to host multilateral exercises than are other countries in
Asia. This has allowed us to use our exercises in Thailand
to further key U.S. objectives, such as supporting Japan's
growing military role in Asia and engaging the Indonesian
military. We are on track for a very successful iteration of
the COBRA GOLD exercise in February 2009. Cobra Gold, the
largest military exercise in the PACOM region, continues to
advance our goal of promoting joint and combined military
operations in our partners of Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and
Singapore.

10. (SBU) Thailand's willingness to allow the United States
to use Utapao Naval Air Station as the hub for our regional
assistance program was key to making the 2004 tsunami and the
2008 Cyclone Nargis relief operations a success. Our
military continues to use Utapao as stop off point for
flights for ongoing operations in South Asia.

THE INCREASING ROLE OF CHINA
----------------------------

11. (SBU) Thai leaders continue to develop closer relations
with China while simultaneously emphasizing the vital role of
the U.S. in the region. While Thai military links with the
United States are deeper and far more apparent than Sino-Thai
links, China's growing influence in Thailand and Southeast
Asia is evident in business, the arts, the media, and the
military. The Thai military has a range of Chinese weapons
systems in its arsenal; the PLA Navy is building closer links
with the Thai navy, and China has worked with Thailand to
improve air defense equipment provided to Thailand in the
late 1980's. In 2007 and 2008, Thai and Chinese special
forces conducted joint exercises, and other mil-to-mil
exchanges have expanded in recent years as has the number of
bilateral military VIP visits.
JOHN

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