This article focuses on the political situation in Thailand and the current state of U.S.-Thai relations. Due to the recent Thai military coup in 2014, the relationship between the United States and Thailand has deteriorated in various aspects to the extent that the ex-ASEAN frontrunner seems to have lost its position as a vibrant democracy and human right advocate and a relatively strong U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region. Although it will be an inevitable challenge for U.S. policymakers, to assist Thailand in regaining such position, it is believed that the United States must reverse its policy on the cutbacks in cooperation with Thailand and work with Thai authorities in an attempt to stabilize the political situation and consequently restore democracy to the country.
In elaboration of the above standpoint, this article is divided into three sections. The first section provides background to how the Thai military coup has come to power and of the present state of U.S.-Thai relations followed by a section which describes the significance of Thai political situation to the United States. The last section will be an illustration on a step-by-step procedure recommended to be taken by the United States in order to take Thailand back to its former self as a democratic nation and a U.S. ally.
In May 2014, General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in what is now Thailand’s fifth military coup under its current monarch of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Although coups have been frequent in Thailand’s turbulent modern history, the crucial timing and the severity of the junta’s subsequent actions suggest a subterranean ratcheting up of tensions. The backdrop of the coup was six months of street protests by “yellow shirts” which paralyzed the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin Shinawatra is undoubtedly considered a controversial figure in Thailand. During his administration, his populist policies worked in favor of his supporters mostly the lower-class who make up the majority of the Thai population. Despite various attempts by the elites to rid Thaksin of his influence, it was him and his allies that had always won elections on consecutive occasions over the past. Coming with the party’s gain in its popularity among the destitutes was the ascending despite from the the urban middle class, elites and especially the royalists who saw the party and its leader’s popularity and policies as cunning approaches to consolidating power. For the royalists, Thaksin’s legacy and influence was also seen as a threat to the monarchy, who has always maintained outright supremacy in modern times.
A loose group comprising royalists, ultra-nationalists and the urban middle class who disliked Thaksin is known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or the “yellow shirts”. It is well known for its constant rallies of political movements against Thaksin and his allies in politics including his own sister the last democratically elected prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They were behind the huge street protests that led up to both the 2006 military coup, which ousted Thaksin and sent him into exile overseas, as well as the recent one, which deposed his sister from the state’s premiership in similar ways. They are renowned for opposing stance against the “red shirts,” who sided with Thaksin and protested against unelected governments that toppled over him and his successors. For the “yellow shirts” and royalists, the coup was therefore seen as a showcase of their own achievement after repeated prolonged efforts to eliminate prospects of Thaksin and his successors’ repeat victories in general elections and their returns to political power.
Upon taking power, Prayuth promised to Thai people in what described as return of “sustainable happiness” and laid a “roadmap” to returning the country the democratic ruling
whilst in reality all he and the junta has been committing seems to be of undemocratic nature and against its originally proclaimed plan. To name a few, Prayuth has suspended the democratic constitution, imposed martial law, and dialed back civil liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. Over the past year, more than 1,000 politicians, academics, and journalists have been detained or sent to Thai military facilities for what is called “viewpoint adjustments”, while Yingluck has been put on trial for criminal negligence over alleged graft in a rice subsidy scheme. In April 2015, the junta released the first draft of its new constitution, the real aim of which was branded undemocratic in that it appeared to work against return of electoral power once wielded by Thaksin Shinawatra to the Thai population. The draft was so unpopular and untrustworthy that it was rejected by the National Reform Council and surprisingly faced opposition from both the Phua Thai and Democrat Parties, the longstanding rivals in Thai politics. In January 2016, the second constitutional draft was launched to the public amidst fear of Meechai Ruchupuan, the official in charge of drawing it up, that it might not resolve long-running troubles and even produce weak civilian governments under the hidden influence of the military. Criticism of the new draft has demonstrated significant flaws in its content which once again bleak the potential of real democracy being returned to the nation. Notwithstanding masses of criticisms, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha remained adamant that the referendum for the draft constitution be held in mid-2017 even without solid guarantee.
As the United States’ oldest ally and a strategic hub to U.S.’ interests in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand’s regressive path cannot be ignored. Thailand is at present a military regime that lacks guarantee of when it will return to civilian rule. Further, it must be noted that elite interests are divergent from the United States’. While the United States, in collaboration with the Asia Pacific region, are expected to strive for bringing back the democratic state in Thailand, the royalists are dreading return of an electoral democracy that brought Thaksin and his successors into power over the past decade. Moreover, they become increasingly hostile with the United States’ signs of growing disapprovals and reactions shown in their curtailment of cooperation with Thai authorities. After Kristie Kenney, the US Ambassador to Thailand, criticized the coup, Thai royalists began a social media campaign calling for the ambassador to be recalled to Washington. Khunying Songsuda Yodmani, the daughter of former pro-US military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn, blasted the United States for ‘meddling’ in Thailand’s affairs and called on the U.S. State Department to “respect its allies and treat them as equals rather than its colonies.”
In the areas of defense and security, the Obama administration suspended more than $4.7 million worth of the unspent FMF and IMET assistance for Thailand. It cancelled high-level engagements, exercises, and a number of training programs with the military and police. Every year, the United States participate in the Cobra Gold, the largest Asia-Pacific military exercise held in Thailand. In the past, the exercise involved many thousands of U.S. and Thai troops and included high-end military operations. In 2015, however, the U.S. military scaled down the Cobra Gold, reducing U.S. troops to just 3,600 and cancelling a large-scale, live-fire exercise associated with amphibious landing. This is not surprising as under prohibitions in U.S. laws, American forces are limited in what exercises they are permitted to conduct with a nation that had overthrown a democratically elected government.
Nevertheless, Thailand, trying to prove its prevailing independence from Western sanctions is embarking on its journey to pursuing bilateral ties with China. To begin with, Thailand’s military junta favors China’s stance on the country’s internal situation. According to the conservative Thai newspaper Naew Na, sources in the Ministry of Defence noted that, “China regarded Thailand’s political problems as an internal issue, and that China would not interfere.” Due to the lack of ideological differences between Thailand and China’s current regimes, Thailand has been working more closely with China. On June 6, 2015, General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that Thailand was now a “partner of China at every level.” Moreover, in January 2015, China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan embarked on a visit to Thailand aimed at boosting Sino-Thai defense relations. For Thailand, securing relations with China is the ruling junta’s way to show Washington that there are alternate partners who are willing to do business with, without fretting about the legitimacy of its rule.
Economically, Thailand’s ruling junta is boosting ties with China as a way to reverse its sluggish growth. In December, Thailand welcomed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the most prominent foreign leader to visit the country since the military seized power on May 22. It was a good opportunity for Thailand to show that Thailand’s political problems are not obstacles to trade, especially since the West has reduced trade ties with Thailand following the coup.
Why Does This Matter?
As the oldest ally to the United States in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand acts as a crucial determinant to the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. While U.S. relations with most countries in Southeast Asia are warming, the United States’ ties with its oldest partner in the region are a critical outlier.
Although it is true that the military junta purposefully took control of Thailand, it must be understood that there is a looming royal succession coming up due to the ailing 87-year-old Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ill-health. For now, the Thai military has assumed political control to ensure it manages the royal succession, whenever that takes place. King Bhumibol guided his people through the tumult that was the second half of the 20th century until today. His death will shake Thailand like nothing has in its modern history, and the Thai military wants to be firmly in charge when that happens, and it is that simple.
In responding to Thailand’s political crisis, the United States must walk a tightrope, balancing consistency in U.S. foreign-policy tenets supporting democracy, human rights and freedom of speech with readiness to deal with deep-rooted consequences of Thailand’s political transition that may arise in the near future. It risks losing serious geopolitical ground if it fails to manage this difficult chapter in Thailand’s political evolution.
Whether or not the junta succeeds in this aim, Prayuth’s “democracy with Thai characteristics” may struggle to bridge his country’s deep political and social divides. American academic David Streckfuss has described his rule as a throwback to Thailand’s “golden age of military dictatorship” during the Cold War. Particularly, it overlooks the rising political expectations of the Thai people. “This is not the same Thailand as 1958, 1976, or 1991,” Streckfuss writes. “And neither are the Thai people the same. Democracy in Thailand may not be inevitable, but its chances are considerably higher than successfully putting the genie of political consciousness back in the bottle.” In other words, Prayuth may find the Thai people growing restless provided that not much has been done to bridge the divides. Meanwhile, the United States has an interest in seeing democracy return to Thailand as rapidly as possible. The U.S. must therefore act as a mediator ready to handle the consequences that may arise from Thailand’s political crisis.
What Should The United States Do?
For now, it is unlikely that Thailand will have real elections until the succession has taken place, which could be several years from now. Moreover, the draft constitution currently being circulated falls short of what would be considered as democratic. The presented charter contains provisions for a new senate where the junta would appoint all 250 members and leave six seats open for the heads of the armed forces. This appointed senate would also check the power of lawmakers during the five-year transitional phase, which allows the junta, and not civilians, to both determine both the senate body and the laws. Further, the new prime minister could be selected if over 250 members of parliament support the motion and if it subsequently approved by a joint session of the lower house and the appointed senate. This would allow the junta-controlled senate, and not the citizens to choose their leader, and would arguably allow junta leaders like Prayuth to prolong his premiership. In addition, the revamped constitution may allow a planned National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee – nicknamed the “crisis panel” – to seize all executive and legislative power from the government and parliament in an emergency. An unelected “outsider” could become prime minister, endorsed by parliament, if a “crisis” arises, and critics fear that pro-junta outsiders will be boosted to become premier. Additionally, the Constitutional Court will continue to decide the fates of politicians who fall afoul of the charter’s laws or if a “crisis” remains unresolved. During the past decade, that Constitutional Court ruled against several elected politicians, effectively ending their careers. Essentially, this constitution will provide the junta a supreme right to prevent the sort of electoral democracy that brought Thaksin and his allies to power, contrary to popular 1997 constitution that the junta canceled after a 2006 coup.
The U.S. government must be strategic. Taking lesson from the hostilities that the Americans faced after the previous U.S. ambassador Kristie Kenney staked out hardline against the coup, Washington must urge the current ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies to be cautious, moderate and take a more nuanced approach towards protecting U.S. interests. Meanwhile, Davies must be urged to continue negotiating with Thai authorities. His team should consult with the military and various stakeholders, in order to deepen understanding of U.S. concerns and listen to perspectives of the key players in the political drama that has engulfed the kingdom. Further, to restore democratic hopes, Davies’ team must also pressure the junta to amend the new draft through diplomatic pressures and negotiations. It must uphold the principle that the constitution follows international guidelines, respects the choice of citizens and not the military officials over their premier. At this point, there were numerous politicians and civilians who were detained over their criticisms of the new draft; the U.S. government must assert the fact that their opinions must be respected. Beyond that, it should pressure the Thai government to end the use of military tribunals to try civilians, and amend or revoke the penal code article 112 on lese-majeste and release those who are convicted under that article.
Thailand’s relations with China have long been strong and it seems that Beijing incrementally steps up its ties with the Thai military every time Washington pulls back. Washington must therefore find ways to demonstrate that it remains a friend of Thailand and not turn its back on the country when politics enters a rough patch. One idea would be to establish a private eminent persons’ group of senior former U.S. foreign-policy officials, experts and business leaders that could meet influential Thais on a regular basis to discuss the future of Thai-U.S. relations, for example, five years down the road.
In the areas of defense and security, Washington can reverse its cuts to military cooperation, but with limits. First, it can continue its full complement of joint military exercises. Second, the U.S. should prepare to hit the ground running with resumption of full military-to-military contact, to include the doubling of IMET assistance. Nonetheless, Washington should also condition that Thailand will only receive full military cooperation if it is progressing towards the democratic path and take into account the human rights of its citizens, through Ambassador Davies’ use of continued diplomatic pressure and negotiations. This way, the U.S. will be able to both improve its ties with Thailand and at the same time ensure that Thailand is walking the right way.
Bangkok hosts one of the largest U.S. embassies in the region, and this serves as the base for a raft of U.S. activities in Southeast Asia including regional headquarters for narcotics addiction, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If the military continues to delay elections and tighten control on civil society, it would not be safe for these institutions and operations to be solely based in Bangkok, as it would allow the junta to jeopardize U.S. interests, institutions and operations. However, rather than completely relocating these activities, which would strain U.S.-Thai relations even further, a good option will be to disperse these interests throughout Southeast Asia, which would not only protect U.S. interests, but would also allow it to better deal with Thailand. For example, the U.S. could enlarge its embassies throughout the region and establish second offices for these activities in countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, for a different set of reasons. U.S.-Vietnam relations in recent times have been improving and strategic; establishing offices in Vietnam will not only allow the U.S. to handle more closely mainland Southeast Asian issues, but will also increase its leverage over the ongoing disputes with China in the South China Sea, a sea crucial to maritime trade. As for Singapore, the island nation’s political stability, development and hub location in Southeast Asia allows it to serve as a haven for U.S. interests to be well-maintained and not be threatened.
Moreover, an important way to regain Thailand is by increasing engagement with nearby countries, which has already been happening. For example, the U.S. could work towards the development and democratization of Thailand’s neighboring countries Lao, Cambodia and Myanmar, in case it will have any spillover effects to Thailand in the future. Having recently gone through a dramatic political transition from a military dictatorship to a democratic regime, working with Myanmar will give hope. Another very important country the U.S. should work very closely with is Indonesia, a regional leader, stable democracy and home to the headquarters of ASEAN, the political and economic organization of ten Southeast Asian countries. First, more diplomatic activities in Indonesia will allow the United States increased presence over ASEAN regional institutions to influence the dynamics and affairs of Southeast Asia as a region. Second, with Indonesia on its side, the U.S. will be able to utilize Indonesia’s power in Southeast Asia to push Thailand and other countries in the region to embrace democratic transitions and human rights. It would not be a quick process, but working with neighboring countries will gradually press Thailand to democratize in the long-run.
After all it is worth noting that there exists remarkable prospect of Thai’s current political status being overlooked by the United States amidst the rising of some neighboring countries on the ASEAN political and diplomatic platform. There also arises a concern that this may steer away the United States’ attention from assisting Thailand in gaining back democracy and basic human rights. Among a few countries is Myanmar which has recently gone through a massive political upheaval from the dictatorship to democratic regime and coming with their newly-acquired democracy is evidence of China’s attempt to secure the top alliance position via its economic collaboration plan and policies with the country. Confining its attention to a small group of the Asia Pacific countries may do the United States more harms than goods. Hence it is crucial that the United States never loses sight of maintaining a good balance of power through its public relations and diplomatic exercises throughout the Asia Pacific region.
This op-ed, written by a concerned Thai citizen, is posted anonymously.