Thailand is a long-standing U.S. ally and military partner, but Washington will be wary of wading into the nation's turbulent politics after the judicial ouster of the Thai prime minister heightened the risk of conflict.
The State Department on Wednesday reacted to a decision by the Thai Constitutional Court to unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as it typically does in response to the grimly familiar episodes of upheaval in the Southeast Asian nation: by urging calm and calling for a democratic resolution.
That underscored the limited leverage the United States has over events in Thailand, although it is America's oldest diplomatic partner in Asia and host of the largest annual U.S.-led military exercises in the region. It also comes at a time when the U.S. is swamped in foreign policy crises, including a revival of its Cold War rivalry with Russia over Ukraine.
Ernie Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the U.S. feels stuck over the policy options it has toward Thailand, which has been roiled by political upheaval and periodic bloodshed since Yingluck's brother, former telecommunications magnate Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a 2006 military coup.
That's pitted Thaksin's largely rural supporters in the north and northeast of the country, against his opponents among the urban elite and Thailand's military and bureaucracy who have accused him of abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej. They charge that Yingluck was a puppet for Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid prison on corruption charges.
"The Constitutional Court removing Yingluck as prime minister is part of a much broader fight over who will control political and economic power in Thailand in the next generation of the leadership after the king passes," said Bower. Bhumibol, 86, the world's longest-serving monarch and revered by Thais, has spent much of the past five years in hospital.
"That's why it's so hard. There's no right answer for the United States. If you support one solution or other you basically alienate a massive part of the Thai society and people," said Bower.
Since November, more than 20 people have been killed and hundreds injured in sporadic gunbattles, drive-by shootings and grenade attacks as anti-government protesters have demanded Yingluck stand down to make way for an interim unelected leader.
Thailand's courts, like its military, are seen as bastions of anti-Thaksin conservatism, and have a record of hostile rulings toward the Shinawatra political machine, which has swept national elections held since 2001.
Yingluck was found guilty Wednesday of abusing her power by transferring the National Security Council chief in 2011. Nine other Cabinet members were also forced out. Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan was appointed the new acting leader.
"We continue to urge all sides to resolve Thailand's political tensions in a peaceful and democratic manner so that the Thai people can choose the political leadership they deserve," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington. "In keeping with Thailand's democratic ideals, a resolution should include elections and an elected government. We urge all sides to exercise restraint and reaffirm that violence is not an acceptable means of resolving political differences."
In the current febrile atmosphere of Thai politics, even that moderate reference to the need for elections may rile opponents of Yingluck's government. Wednesday's ruling raises doubts about whether new elections planned for July will be held, following polls in February that were disrupted by the protesters and then invalidated by the court.
While it's advisable for Washington to stay out of the internal politics, it remains important to sustain the operational side of the bilateral relationship with Thailand, said Frank Jannuzi, an Asia expert at the Mansfield Foundation.
Domestic instability has diminished Thailand's once-leading role in regional affairs, but the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok remains the key hub for American government engagement in Southeast Asia, including by its diplomats, military, law enforcers, aid agency, counter-narcotics agents and health officials, Jannuzi said.