Guest Column

Spy Me, Spy You, Sa-Bai Thailand

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 4 November 2013

Last week’s revelation that the US embassies in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Rangoon and Bangkok nested spying facilities produced different reactions.

Indonesia raised hell and fire, while other Asean countries were more discreet. The most interesting was Thailand’s attitude towards the whole affair.

Senior officials played dumb as if nothing happened. Lt Gen Paradorn Pattanatabutr, Secretary General of National Security Council, did not think the US would use Thailand as a spying base. Teerat Tatanasevi, the government spokesman, said that there were no intelligence reports about the US spying bases. Better still no comments came from the Thai military and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Thais did not want to say too much for good reasons.

It is an open secret within the intelligence and diplomatic community that Thailand was and has been the hub of spying bases of foreign intelligent agencies for decades. During the Cold War, Thailand was the bulwark against communism as the closest US ally in mainland Southeast Asia. The country housed the region’s largest information-gathering base for Washington. When the American troops pulled out from Thailand in 1976, one of the contentious points was the ownership and operation of Ramasun spying facilities in Udorn Air Force base. The government, under Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj, rejected the US request to continue the use of the facilities beyond the July 1976, the deadline for American troop withdrawal from Thailand.

In the world without internet, Thailand’s location was ideal. It bordered communist countries in Indochina—dispatching spies across the border and gathering information through electronic devices was easy. During the Vietnam War followed by the Cambodian conflict, Thailand served as the center of intelligence gatherings from all countries around the world. Beyond spooking, these spy communities also engaging in recruiting, kidnapping and undermining each other’s capacity in obtaining classified information.

All that has changed after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, the whole Western spying operation in Thailand, led by the US, has been upgraded and running focusing on anti-terrorism campaign. The Bush administration minced no words and identified Southeast Asia as the second front for terrorism. It was later disclosed that Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries were used by terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks to map out their plans.

The arrest of Hambali in August 2003 was the accumulative efforts of the US and Thai intelligence agencies working together to track down the Southeast Asian chief of al-Qaida. That helped to explain why throughout the past decade, Thailand was muted over the surveillance and anti-terrorism activities from the US.

In mid-2005, as the US government was paying more attention to halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the spying operation intensified along the Thai-Burma border including North Korea’s activities in Thailand and the region. The growing ties between Burma and North Korea before the current reform took place in 2011 alarmed the US and the West. With the assistance from Thailand, mobile and fixed spying facilities set up and manned by American and Australian intelligence officials to gather information and intercept electronic signals.

The evidence gathered by the tripartite surveillance operation succeeded in pressuring Burma to halt missile technology exchanges with North Korea. Before the normalization of US-Burma relations, Naypyidaw also pledged to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The interceptions of North Korean ships in high sea carried sanctioned products and weapons including its plane in December 2009 at Don Mueang were thanks to joint spying efforts.

Foreign citizens or agencies interested in Thailand and its leaders understand full well that lots of information and data are available in open sources. Mining confidential information can be done through person-to-person communications and media outlets which regularly publicized classified information. For instance, sensitive economic forecasts and data, treated as secret with jail terms in other countries, could be accessed openly. In addition, defense related matters including details of specific arms procurements and strategies find their way on front pages of local newspapers.

Before WikiLeaks disclosure of confidential information on Thailand passing through the US Embassy, Thai officials were very fond of talking to American diplomats over lunch and good wines. They gave information and opinions in a casual manner. After they found their names and rare views being quoted in the thousands of cables dispatched from Bangkok, they were shocked and embarrassed. Now the whole Thai bureaucrats have become more circumspect in conversations, if at all, with American and other diplomats.

Thailand has benefitted from the US surveillance operation, both inside and outside the embassy, on a need-to-know and case-by-case basis. So, it is better to keep quiet.

This article was originally published in The Nation on Nov. 4. Some parts have been edited for clarity. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.