The Thai-American Legacy on American Politics

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By Quentin Choy

July 17, 2021

While Thai-Americans play a small role in terms of numbers, their impact on American politics is long-lasting. In this post we’ll explore the role that Thai-Americans have played in American politics.

Two Thai-Americans haves served in the United States Congress. Charles Djou (R-HI) was a U.S. representative from 2010 to 2011 and was the first Thai-American elected to the House of Representatives.

Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) currently serves in the United States Senate. She was elected to the House in 2012 and to the Senate in 2016 where she still serves.

A Look at Thai-Americans

According to Pew Research Center, 343,000 Thai Americans lived in the United States in 2019. The majority of Thai-Americans in the United States live in California.

33,000 Thai-Americans live in Los Angeles, making the city the largest location of Thai people outside of Thailand.

New York City also holds a large portion of America’s Thai Americans. Around 11,000 Thai people live in New York City. According to Asian American Federation, 64 percent of New York City’s Thai population is foreign-born.

The United States is allied with Thailand. In Southeast Asia, Thailand is a valued ally for the United States and the promotion of American interests in the region.

Thailand and the United States work together in countering narcotics, human trafficking, and wildlife trafficking.

America also supplies military training and weapons to Thailand.

Since 1950, Thailand has received U.S. military equipment, essential supplies, training, and other assistance in the construction and improvement of facilities.  We have $2.85 billion in ongoing Foreign Military Sales and an annual slate of more than 400 joint military exercises and engagements.

from U.S. State Department’s “U.S. Relations With Thailand

Charles Djou: First Thai U.S. Representative (2010-11)

Charles Djou is the son of a Chinese father and Thai mother. He was born in Los Angeles and attended college at the University of Pennsylvania. He later got his Juris Doctor from the University of Southern California.

Djou rose in fame throughout Hawaiian politics, becoming the House minority leader in the Hawai’i State House of Representatives. Prior to that, Djou served as Vice Chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party.

Djou won a 2010 special election for one of Hawaii’s two congressional seats. In Congress, he served on the House Budget committee and the House Armed Services committee.

Charles Djou broke from the Republicans several times during his short time in the House. He supported a repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and supported a version of the DREAM Act.

Djou Out of Power

He lost re-election in 2012. In 2011, he suspended his campaign for months as he was deployed to Afghanistan.

He described his role during efforts at counterinsurgency in Afghanistan with Politico.

“A good chunk of them, I made the decision to let ’em go. Part of that is we didn’t have good evidence. Part of that is because when you’re in a counter-insurgency environment, you want to be extra cautious. You don’t want to detain a local villager, who really is innocent, and then basically just anger the village and the family and turn all of them against Americans.”

Charles Djou in “Charles Djou serves Afghanistan stint

Djou failed to win election to the House again in 2014, and he lost a bid for Honolulu mayor in 2016.

Today, Djou is attaining a Master’s degree from the United States Army War College. He is no longer a member of the Republican Party and endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

He is an independent and cited Trump’s personal character as his reason for leaving the GOP.

Tammy Duckworth: First Thai U.S. Senator

Tammy Duckworth was born in Bangkok in 1968. She and her family moved to Honolulu before Duckworth attended the University of Hawai’i. She would later earn a Master’s degree from George Washington University.

Duckworth speaks both Thai and Indonesian fluently.

In 2004, Duckworth’s life changed forever. While serving as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in the Iraq War, Iraqi militants shot down her helicopter.

Duckworth lost both of her legs and partial movement in her right arm. This remarkable survival story makes her easily recognizable as she is the only wheelchair-bound U.S. Senator currently serving. She now uses prosthetic legs along with her wheelchair.

“When I see myself wearing those legs in a mirror, I see loss. But when I see this”—she gestures toward the steel-and-titanium prosthesis attached to her thigh above her right knee—“I see strength. I see a reminder of where I am now. People always want me to hide [my wheelchair] in pictures. I say no! I earned this wheelchair. It’s no different from a medal I wear on my chest. Why would I hide it?”

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) in Vogue’s “Senator Tammy Duckworth on the Attack That Took Her Legs—And Having a Baby at 50

During her medical recovery in Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C., Duckworth began to realize the insufficient services given to veterans. She referred to Walter Reed as the “petting zoo” as many high-profile politicians came for photo-ops with veterans while doing nothing to help them.

She won election to the House in 2012 and to the Senate in 2016.

Aside from being the first Thai-American in the U.S. Senate, Duckworth is also the first U.S. Senator to give birth while in office. Much of Duckworth’s work involves women’s rights, Asian-American rights, and veterans affairs.

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) at Senator Duckworth’s baby shower.

She was also on Joe Biden’s list of potential vice-presidential picks. Her memoir is titled Every Day is a Gift: A Memoir by Tammy Duckworth.

Conclusion

As we can see from Charles Djou and Tammy Duckworth, the legacy left behind by Thai-Americans on U.S. politics is immense, despite their numbers being small. Two war veterans of different parties both shaped the way that Americans view issues such as war, immigration, motherhood, and the acceptable behavior of a president.

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