President Barack Obama’s short stopover in Thailand was rich in political symbolism.
Coming two and a half years after Bangkok was torn apart by urban warfare, Obama’s visit signals just how quickly political stability has been restored following the election of Yingluck Shinawatra in July 2011.
Over the past month or so there has been more than the usual chatter about the prospect of a military coup against Yingluck but it would be a brave or, more plausibly, foolish general who would challenge Yingluck’s legitimacy. Domestically, her diversion of tax-payers money to rice farmers continues to infuriate the commentariat but holding firm to Thaksin Shinawatra’s legacy of populism will do her no political harm. Faster than expected economic growth is also helping to secure her domestic authority.
On a broader stage, Obama’s visit is another sign that Yingluck is internationally accepted as a leader in her own right, further weakening the claim that she is a puppet of her exiled brother.
Prior to the meeting with Yingluck, there was an audience with King Bhumibol, in which Obama presented a photo album featuring the King’s meetings with former U.S. Presidents. This was a noteworthy encounter at many levels. In recent years rumours about the king’s health have been even more popular than rumours about military intervention. Lately there has been talk that the king’s condition is very fragile indeed. This very public appearance will, if only briefly, silence the rumours. The televised encounter between two very different heads of state was a public relations triumph of royal persistence. Thai royalty thrives on auspicious imagery and, for some, the audience with the all-powerful Obama will help to prolong the magic.
But the montage of images—Obama with the ailing King at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital; Obama with a beaming Yingluck at Government House—also spoke to Thailand’s contemporary transition…
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