WASHINGTON – The U.S. is "reasonably confident" Thailand's military won't launch a coup, a senior defense official said Tuesday, although analysts warned the nation's political crisis could trigger armed conflict.
More than 20 people have died and hundreds have been injured in political violence since November, the latest episode in eight years of upheaval that has pitted the largely rural supporters of populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra against the Southeast Asian nation's traditional elites.
The standoff entered a new and potentially dangerous phase last week when the Thai constitutional court removed Thaksin's sister Yingluck as prime minister. That's stimulated debate in Washington about how it might help calm the tensions roiling Thailand, a longstanding U.S. ally and military partner.
U.S. officials told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that they were closely monitoring the situation but had no intention of intervening.
"Like most internal political impasses and divisions, it's not something that foreigners can come in and magically fix. It has to be a Thai solution," said the senior diplomat for Southeast Asia, Scot Marciel. He said Washington was just stressing the solution should be constitutional and democratic.
Since Yingluck's ouster a caretaker prime minister has taken over, and the government wants elections planned for July to go ahead. But the way ahead is uncertain. The government's opponents are demanding a new, unelected prime minister first take over and implement political reforms.
Thailand's military has intervened many times during decades of political tumult. Most recently it toppled Thaksin in a 2006 coup. Thaksin now lives in exile to escape prison on a corruption conviction.
Senior U.S. Defense Department official Amy Searight said the U.S. is "reasonably confident" that wouldn't happen this time. She said the Thai military has been "pretty open" that it has no interest in getting involved in running Thai politics again, and U.S. was commending the military for its restraint.
"At this point in time we don't have reason to expect that the Thai military will change their current stance," she said, but added it was a complex situation and a lot could happen.
U.S. analysts said that given the pessimism over the prospects for a political compromise, a violent conflict was the most likely outcome. They said that would be a blow to democratic governance in Southeast Asia and a setback to U.S. strategic interests.
Former U.S. defense official Vikram Singh said there are those on both sides in Thailand who are preparing in case armed conflict breaks out, which could prompt a Thai military intervention to restore stability.
"It's something we should be preparing to face, should it come to that," he said.
But Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said protesters in Thailand on both sides would be "aghast" at the notion that the U.S. or China could shape the outcome of Thai crisis.
He said the best way to help would be to encourage the Thai parties to talk to each other.