On 28 November 2010, the release of U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, the insurgent citizen watchdog group headed by the elusive Julian Assange sent shockwaves throughout the ranks of the U.S. government and its allies. The released cables, which date from 1966 to the present, have suggested collusion between the ostensibly democratic U.S. regime and less savory regimes around the world, pointed to spying by members of the U.S. diplomatic corps, and raised significant questions about the objectives of U.S. foreign policy. WikiLeaks’ latest release has also prompted an outpouring of panic by the U.S. government about the effects of the cables on their legitimacy and work and conflicting responses by human rights groups that the released cables may contain unredacted information which may further endanger those who are already vulnerable.
At this stage, only a very small number of the documents have been released. WikiLeaks themselves have posted 291 out of 251,287 total documents, while a handful of news outlets who were given the cables — The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El Pais — have also published either extracts of documents or analysis based on them. Although the published cables and analyses have covered a range of significant issues, there is one location, often overlooked in discussions of U.S. foreign policy, which has not yet emerged in the available cables.
This location is Thailand. Thailand has long been an important diplomatic ally of the United States as well as a willing host to overt and clandestine U.S. operations beginning with the Cold War and continuing through to the so-called War on Terror. Both the number of documents which mention Thailand and the number which originated the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok are in the highest fifth of all documents on WikiLeaks. In concrete terms, this means that there are 3,516 cables which mention Thailand, and 2,941 which originated at the embassy in Bangkok (75 classified as ‘secret,’ 1343 classified as ‘confidential,’ and 1523 that were ‘unclassified’).
While we wait for the cables related to Thailand to be released, it is worthwhile to ponder potential lacunae which might be cleared up by information contained within them. According to Der Spiegel, leaked cables which originated in Bangkok only date from 2004 but the 3,516 documents which mention Thailand may cover a wider period. The information contained in the documents which mention Thailand is potentially significant not only in relation to the U.S. role in Thailand, but also in terms of basic information about events in Thailand. In the context of relatively un-free circulation of information in Thailand, particularly about past episodes of state violence or anything else which could be argued to be related to ‘national security,’ the diplomatic cables may contain very significant revelations. While the list of topics covered by the cables is now available, as mentioned by Bangkok Pundit, the categories are not yet specific enough to pinpoint what may or may not be addressed.
Despite this uncertainty, I raise two topics which may, hopefully, be addressed in the leaked cables: one related to U.S. foreign policy and the other related to Thai domestic policy, but which the U.S. government may have tracked carefully.
- What precisely occurred at the CIA ‘black site’ prison in Thailand? In 2005, Dana Priest of the Washington Post reported that Thailand was one of the sites of a CIA ‘black site’ prison. The ‘black site’ prisons were detention and interrogation facilities operated off the grid, which possessed shadowy legal statuses and were reported to include sites in 28 countries. Both Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, who remain in U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay, were renditioned and interrogated at the CIA ‘black site’ prison in Thailand. In 2008, the Washington Post reported that in late 2005, the CIA ordered that tapes of the waterboarding of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah at the ‘black site’ prison in Thailand be destroyed. When queried about the ‘black site’ prison, Thai authorities have persistently evaded questions about the location or even existence of the prison. Perhaps the cables might shed light on basic information about the ‘black site’ prison, as well as the kinds of relationships between Thai, U.S., and other state officials have sustained this network of shadowy sites in which those deemed to be dangerous to the U.S. state have been renditioned, detained, and tortured.
- What precisely happened during the coup of 19 September 2006? What has happened during the episodic contention among the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the United Democratic Front Against Dictatorship (UDD), and the various regimes that have been in power? What has been the U.S. government perspective on the contention? The coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was launched against him when he was at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York City. What machinations, among which actors, were necessary for the coup to occur, and what did the U.S. government know? In the subsequent months, up to February 2010, the last month covered by the cables, what facilitated the contention among the various actors inside and outside the streets? What was behind the failure of the PM Somchai Wongsawat regime to end the occupation of the airport by the PAD in December 2008? What occurred during the April 2009 Songkran violence between state security forces and the UDD? In each of these moments, what overt and more shadowy forces may have sustained the regimes in power, and what was known by the U.S. government?
What would also be of interest – and perhaps one could hope might be uncovered by WikiLeaks later – would be cables about the contention between the red-shirted members of the UDD and state security forces in April-May 2010 in Bangkok, in which 91 people died and over 2100 were injured. On 19 May 2010, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Thailand, urging citizens “defer all travel to Bangkok and defer all non-essential travel to the rest of Thailand.” While this travel warning has expired and the violence in the streets has died down, the status of the events of April-May 2010 remain contentious. In particular, a clear sense of what happened, and who were the key actors, inside and outside the state security forces, remains unclear. In addition, an unknown number of people were arrested by the state security forces during and after the violence; their current status and the locations of detention centers remain unknown. Efforts by the government of PM Abhisit Vejjajiva — the regime in power when the violence took place — to discover the truth about what took place do not look promising. While a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been appointed, their work may be constrained by the fact that the government which presided over the violence and excessive use of force remains in power. Within this context, U.S. diplomatic cables about the events may shed light on what really took place, who was responsible for the violence, and what contention is now being obscured by the relative calm on the streets of Bangkok. In other contexts and times when documents and information from a given government are not available, U.S. government documents have illuminated violence which has taken place. Perhaps most notably, the declassification of U.S. government documents about the regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile both revealed U.S. complicity with the regime while also providing crucial information about the regime not available in Chilean documents.
In their explanation of why they published selected WikiLeaks cables, the New York Times explained that it is because, “the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money…. As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.” I would make a further claim to the broader international significance of the cables. In countries in which there state keeps information tightly controlled, U.S. intelligence analyses or even observations by embassy staff may reveal forms of violence and collusion which would emerge into public circulation otherwise. In the case of Thailand, as the contents of the leaked cables become publicly known, they may shed light on the mechanics by which the ruling regime has stayed in power, if the U.S. has been part of that retention or power, and may answer a series of questions not yet imagined. As noted by Bangkok Pundit, there is now a specific site set up for leaked cables about Thailand, which we should watch carefully in the coming weeks as cables are released. Whether or not WikiLeaks should release the cables has become an immaterial question. Instead, the question has become a different one: now that startling revelations are emerging, what are we — critics, journalists, activists, and others — going to do with the released information?