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Thailand is the United States closest ally in Southeast Asia. The principal treaty between the two is the 1966 Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations. The principal security treaties are the 1954 Manila Agreement and the subsequent Thanat-Rusk communiqué of 1962 in which both countries agree to come to the defense of the other in case of attack. The United States and Thailand currently conduct more than 20 joint training exercises a year, including the largest multinational exercise, Cobra Gold, which annually involves 22,000 U.S. and Thai troops.
Thailand is also one of the leading importers of U.S. arms in the region. Since 1987, the United States has shipped $3.4 billion dollars worth of arms to Thailand. Issues of concern include Thailands human rights and democracy record, Thai support for Khmer Rouge guerrillas in neighboring Cambodia, illicit arms trafficking, and the financial burden of failed arms sales.
Thailand was long considered one of the "Asian Tiger" economies, with impressively high levels of export-led growth. But the 1997-98 economic crisis in East Asia hit Thailand hard, and a modest recovery has only just begun. Economic difficulties have exacerbated already large disparities in income. Poverty and unemployment have risen. Yet due to cash shortages and strict international financial requirements, government funding for human needs has fallen, with the Ministry of Public Health's budget reduced 10% and the community and social services budget cut 7.6% (Human Development Report 1999, United Nations Development Program).
Human Rights & Democracy
Thailand has a long history of military dictatorship. Thailands first elected Prime Minister took office in 1988. However, a bloodless coup in 1991, followed by brief military rule and violent suppression of protests, marred the Thai transition to democracy. Since 1992 four different Prime Ministers have held office; the most recent, Chuan Leekpai, came to power in 1997 as a result of the Asian financial crisis.
While the human rights situation has improved for Thai citizens with the adoption of a new constitution in October 1997, the State Department's Human Rights Report for 1999 stated:
Human Rights Watch's 1999 report has described the Thai military's treatment of Burmese refugees as "the most serious human rights issue in Thailand." In the past several years, the Thai military has been cooperating with the military junta (known as SLORC) ruling neighboring Burma. The Thai military forced Burmese refugees from the Karen ethnic group back across the border into Burma, into active combat zones. Burmese refugees have lived in Thailand for years, contributing cheap labor, but now that unemployment has risen they are less welcome.
According to a State Department report, local Thai military units that forcibly repatriated Burmese refugees acted without the knowledge or approval of central military authorities in Bangkok. Amnesty International reported that in 1998, Thai soldiers beat one refugee to death for returning to his camp past curfew, and abused and ill-treated other Karen refugees from Burma. (Report to Congress on the Activities of the Thai Military on the Thai-Burma Border, U.S. State Department, February 18, 1998.)
Thai Military Links to the Khmer Rouge
Thailand supported the genocidal Khmer Rouge (KR) and other guerrilla groups in Cambodia during the1970s and 1980s. The Khmer Rouge used Thailand as a safe-haven and supply route since Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978. In December 1993, a KR weapons depot was discovered in Thailand's Chanthaburi province. Morton Abramowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Thailand, said in a 29 May 1994 Washington Post editorial that, "By graft or statecraft, Thailand has become [KR leader] Pol Pot's best ally." The Far Eastern Economic Review reported at the time that, while most of the weapons were Chinese, "some of the artillery pieces and other weapons displayed in press photographs have been identified by Western experts as being U.S. designed arms." A February 1995 State Department report on Thai support for the KR confirmed that the Thai military supplied some of these weapons.
Thailand now claims it has cut all ties with the Khmer Rouge, but reports still persist that Thai military commanders and businessmen are providing financial support to the KR. Congress mandated a State Department report on these allegations in its FY97 Foreign Relations Authorization Act. The February 1997 State Department report came to the same conclusion that "neither the government nor the military forces of Cambodia or Thailand are cooperating, tactically or strategically, with the Khmer Rouge in their military operations" (Implementation of Sections 541 of PL 104-863, U.S. Department of State).
However, independent investigators found that elements of the Thai military continue to support the Khmer Rouges logging efforts, contrary to its public position. This support amounted to between $7-13 million in 1996, directly sustaining KR operations, according to a 1997 Global Witness critique of the State Department FY 97 Report. A Global Witness report in 1999 indicates that the volume of illegal trade has finally decreased, but more likely due to lack of timber than a genuine change of heart from Thai authorities. Most troubling are signs that timber trade across the northern Thai-Cambodian border may soon resume.
Illicit Small Arms Trafficking
Thailand is a long-time source of illegal arms for groups such as South Asian militants, Burmese rebels and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Thai arms brokers have been linked with specific militant groups such as: the National Socialist Council of Nagaland and the United Liberation Front of Assam in northeastern India; the Aceh Merdeka rebels in Indonesia; the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka; and others. According to an August 14, 1999 article in the Sydney Morning Herald, this illegal trade is difficult to stop because the "companies involved are linked with corrupt elements in the Thai military and the customs service, with some owned or partly owned by serving senior Thai naval and army officers." Many of these weapons were originally manufactured in the Soviet Union or the United States.
Recent U.S. arms exports risk contributing to this problem. Thailand has decided to purchase $40 million worth of M-16A2 assault rifles, carbines, small arms, and grenade launchers from the United States (FBIS-EAS-97-166, 17 June 1997). According to the annual reports to Congress for fiscal years 1996-98, the U.S. State Department authorized $28.7 million worth of export licenses for 97,969 machine guns, pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns to Thailand.
Recent U.S. Arms Deals
In 1996, the Pentagon agreed to sell Thailand eight F/A-18C/D Hornet fighter/strike jets. This plane is the U.S. Navys premier fighter/bomber. The $578 million deal also included five McDonnell Douglas Harpoon anti-ship missiles, spares, support and training.
At the time, Thailand insisted that Americas top-of-the-line air-to-air missile, the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), be part of the sale. AMRAAM, manufactured by Hughes and Raytheon, uses an internal radar to guide to target, enabling a user to "launch-and-leave." Because of its advanced technology, the AMRAAM has not been cleared for export to any country in the region. But the Thai government, the U.S. manufacturers, and the Pentagon have used the potential sale of similar European missiles to pressure the U.S. administration into allowing the AMRAAM sale. USAF officials have called exports of AMRAAM "crucial" to keeping the production line open and lowering per unit procurement costs for the U.S. armed forces (Janes Defence Weekly, 20 August 1994).
To win the F/A-18 sale, the administration pledged to deliver the AMRAAMs once a comparable missile has been exported to the region, or when the Thai government thinks its security is threatened (FBIS-EAS-96-171, 1 September 1996). This sale, even with this delaying tactic, set a precedent for further advanced missile sales to other states in the region.
However, the East Asian economic crisis put the brakes on the F/A-18 sale. Strapped for cash, Bangkok was forced to cancel the Hornet deal in early 1998, and asked the United States to let it out of its contractual obligation to buy the jets. The Clinton administration agreed.
This left the U.S. government holding the bag, since the United States had already agreed to purchase the planes from Boeing, according to usual Foreign Military Sales procedures. Desperate, the U.S. tried to convince first Chile, then Kuwait to buy the aircraft. When these efforts proved unsuccessful, the Defense Department agreed to swallow the unexpected costs itself and give the Hornets to the Marine Corps, marking "the first time the Pentagon voluntarily terminated a Foreign Military Sales contract at its own expense" (Defense News, 5 April 1999). Instead of the state-of-the-art F/A-18s, Thailand agreed in July 2000 to buy sixteen used U.S. Air Force F-16A/B Block aircraft.
American taxpayers ultimately absorbed the cost of the decision to sell such expensive, high-tech weaponry to a poorer, less developed country.
Factbook entry for Thailand.
Last Updated: July 2000