Thai scholars say special relationship with U.S. still strong

Despite the rising influence of Asian neighbors, America’s impact on ideas, technology and culture remain strong in Thailand, and the special relationship between the two nations is an enduring one, several Thai scholars told a local newspaper last week.

With globalization advancing and creating new wealth and power centers in a multipolar world, “the American influence started to decline, but it still has deep roots in Thai society,” Professor Yukti Mukdawijitra, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, told The Nation newspaper.

“As American knowledge is practical, it greatly influenced the elite and middle classes … and that sentiment has been passed down through the generations,” Thanet Apornsuwan, a professor of history at Thammasat University in Bangkok told the paper.

Captain Stephen Williams of Massachusetts was the first United States citizen to reach Thailand, then known as Siam, 200 years ago in 1818, when his ship docked in Bangkok with the goal of establishing trade between the two nations. He was followed over the next century and beyond by merchants and missionaries. Officially, bilateral relations began with the Treaty of Amity in 1833 making Thailand the oldest treaty ally of the United States in Asia.

The merchants and especially the missionaries brought with them developments in medicine, education and the sciences. They shared their learning and expertise with Thais at all levels of society from Kings to commoners.

American influence accelerated at the start of the 20th century when a few U.S. citizens served as advisors to the Thai monarchy in some fields. It expanded even further from the 1960s onwards as an American presence grew. Thai troops, as is well known, have served alongside U.S. soldiers in several conflicts and peacekeeping missions, and still conduct joint training exercises every year, including Cobra Gold, the largest training exercises in the Asia-Pacific region.

Among the most important American influences on Thailand has been, however, a liberal attitude that is the foundation of modern democracies, the scholars said. Although Thailand has wrestled with creating a democratic system that fits its unique characteristics as a society, virtually every Thai leader in recent times has acknowledged that Thailand must be, in some shape or form, a democracy.

In the realm of culture, in recent years, “Japan and South Korea [have been] exporting their soft power – J-Pop and K-Pop to Thailand. More recently we have seen a boom in Chinese tourists. East Asian cultures are forming exchanges among themselves, and the Chinese language has become popular among Thais,” Prof. Yukti said.

American culture is, nonetheless, still an important influence in Thailand. “Despite the current craze for K-pop and the close interaction with our Asian neighbors, American films, music, and fashion are still easy to engage with so they remain popular,” Prof. Yukti said.