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Political view behind the Tham Luang incident

“It is not only a humanitarian assistance but also a political implication

Thai and International news headlines have been covering with 12 Thai football juniors and their coach trapped in Tham Luang cave in the northern Thailand for weeks. The topic has been virally mentioned across both online and offline platform around the world, so it is not only prays and encouragement, but also amount of international helps, British professional divers, Australian medical experts, Japanese irrigation experts, a team of US troops and high-technology and useful equipment from China and so on, which have arrived to Thailand in order to cooperate with Thai officials to get these victims out of the cave.

According to the US official statement to public, Thai government sent their request for help to the US government, but what Thai mass media have presented to public is only one-side truth. Thais, so far, have been acknowledged that every country, which has sent their teams joining in rescue operation, voluntarily offers to join in. 

Nonetheless, for politics, implication does matter. As this rescue operation had globally been watched and interested, one of the significant tools, which I automatically think about, is “soft power”. It is a political mechanism in promoting and influencing people’s values, ideas and beliefs.

Russia, the current host of 2018 FIFA World cup, can be a great example to show how soft power plays its role. As a huge wave of people floods into Russia to watch football games, definitely, most of them may spend time travelling around Russia where people can learn about Russian food, society and culture more. 

Essentially, Russia has also received a number of compliments in hosting the FIFA World cup, so the Russia’s reputation is more or less improved on the ground level. 

As public opinions matter in international relations, it can either strengthen or weaken relationship between countries. For instance, during the Cold War, Thailand and the US had a tight relationship because the US supported many Thailand’s development projects namely infrastructure, etc. As a deep bound connection has been thriving, the US influence in culture, food, movie and education, so-called “American soft power” gradually embedded into Thai society. Although, as time has passed by, Thai-US relations has been worsen by domestic or international occurrence namely US interference into Thai politics, US strong words in condemning Thai internal affair, etc. from time to time, the American soft power remains its influence in Thai society. 

For the Tham Laung incident, the US sends its officers to help Thailand in the rescue operation and President Trump does also tweet and give compliment to both the US and Thai officers. Significantly, for public opinion, we have seen posts expressing gratitude and paying tribute to American team, British divers, Australian doctors and every country joining in the operation on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. It is obvious that Thais is more optimistic towards these countries. 

Therefore, as I mentioned earlier about soft power, I observe that these international assistance are also linked to political relations between countries supporting this rescue operation and Thailand. Thus, in my view, these countries may engage themselves in this operation for not only humanitarian assistance but also political implication. 

First, for England, they are currently suffering from the aftermath of Brexit, so they are in need of negotiating new bilateral trade deal with many countries including Thailand. As Thai Prime Minister, General Prayuth, officially visited England on June 2018, this issue was also raised up during the talk. According to the trade tariff which the US and China have put on each other products recently, two countries clearly shown a sign of antagonism in expanding their influence over Asian countries. The US has revealed a gradual interest in returning its influence to Asia according to the recent remark from the US secretary of defence at the 2018 Shangri-La dialogue and Trump’s statement for a possible re-joining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). On the one hand, China is currently Thailand’s top trading partners. Therefore, having a close relationship with Thailand would benefit and meet both the US and China intention. 

For Australia, according to the ASEAN-Australian special summit on March 2018, Australia reportedly announced that they would like to engage in and cooperate with ASEAN more and it is undeniable that Thailand has taken a leading role in ASEAN. Hence, providing assistance to this operation could partially benefit a long term relationship between two countries more or less. Finally, for Japan, the Japanese government has cooperated with Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) Thailand Office to support this operation with irrigation experts. In politics, being a huge industrial investor for many decades, Japan has economically influenced Thailand. Significantly, the US, one of the Japan’s closest allies and China, one of the Japan’s rivals, both joins in the operation. Japan seem to be obligated to participate as well.

The 12 footballers and their coach trapped in Tham Luang cave (Photo from Thai Navy Seal)

About the author: Thareerat Laohabut has graduated a Bachelor Degree of Political Science, Thammasat University, Thailand with Erasmus+ scholarship, one year exchange program at the Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science, University of Munich (LMU), Germany.