Prayuth blasts US envoy’s remarks, calls himself ‘democratic soldier’

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 28, 2015

UPDATE: U.S. Charges d’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy was summoned by Thailand’s Foreign Ministry Wednesday following diplomat Daniel Russel’s call for Thailand to lift martial law (reported below). AP reports: “Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Russel’s comments had “hurt” many Thais and showed a lack of understanding of Thai politics.”

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Thai junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has rebutted a top US diplomat’s calls for a more “inclusive” political reform process and the lifting of martial law. The general’s response yet again shows the impossible task to convince the world outside of Thailand that everything under the authoritarian rule is normal. 

The art of international diplomacy requires a very particular set of skills. Skills that one acquires over a very long career. If both parties we’re highlighting in this story actually had them, that would be the end of it. But that’s not the case.

Last week we reported on the attempts by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to proclaim a meeting by four foreign ambassadors with Foreign Minister and former Supreme Commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn as supportive endorsements of the military’s juntas “reform” plans, which turned out to be neutral courtesy handshakes at best – and in some cases polite, yet assertive reminders of the junta’s ongoing repression of civil liberties, human rights and a generally exclusive political process.

In what can be considered as an addendum to last week’s story, the ‘Bangkok Post’ reported on the meeting between Thai junta Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan with the United States’ Chargé D’affaires Patrick Murphy, in which the latter is reported to have pledged that military cooperation with Thailand will continue.

That is especially noteworthy since shortly after the coup of May 22, 2014, the US suspended $3.5m in military aid (again, it bears repeating that it is still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn). The coup also has casts doubt over the long-running annual regional military exercise “Cobra Gold”, which will likely be scaled down when it takes place in February. However what was not reported – and had to be later tweeted out by the US Chargé d’affaires himself – is that Mr. Murphy also told General Prawit that the “US-Thai relationship will not return to capacity until democracy restored.”

This week saw another round of bilateral back-and-forth when the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel visited Thailand (among other countries in Southeast Asia), the highest ranking U.S. diplomat to travel to Thailand in an official capacity since the coup.

Apart from meeting Thai junta Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak, former Prime Ministers Yingluck Shinawatra (her first semi-public appearance ever since she was retroactively impeached last Friday, thus banning her from politics for the next five years) and Abhisit Vejjajiva (remember him? where he and his “Democrat” Party blamed “corruption and abuse of power” for last year’s political deadlock), Mr. Russel also made these remarks during an event at Chulalongkorn University:

The fact is, and it’s unfortunate, but our relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago. (…)

The United States does not take sides in Thai politics. We believe it is for the Thai people to determine the legitimacy of their political and legal processes. But we are concerned about the significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and on assembly, and I’ve been very straightforward about these concerns.

We’re also particularly concerned that the political process doesn’t seem to represent all elements of Thai society. Now (…), we’re not attempting to dictate (…) But an inclusive process promotes political reconciliation, which in turn is key to long-term stability. That’s where our interests lie. The alternative — a narrow, restricted process — carries the risk of leaving many Thai citizens feeling that they’ve been excluded from the political process. (…)

I’d add that the perception of fairness is also extremely important and although this is being pretty blunt, when an elected leader is removed from office, is deposed, then impeached by the authorities — the same authorities that conducted the coup — and then when a political leader is targeted with criminal charges at a time when the basic democratic processes and institutions in the country are interrupted, the international community is going to be left with the impression that these steps could in fact be politically driven. (…)

Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions of speech and assembly – these would be important stepsas part of a generally inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country.

Remarks by Daniel R. Russel at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, January 26, 2015 via United States Department of State

These indeed are very critical, if not quite damning, words by the American diplomat towards the Thai military junta and the political situation in Thailand as a whole. It was just a matter of time until junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha responded to this in his usual manner – and while at first he shrugged it off, he didn’t disappoint:

“Thai democracy will never die, because I’m a soldier with a democratic heart. I have taken over the power because I want democracy to live on,” the junta-leader-cum-prime minister declared, adding that the situation in Thailand was unique, as nowhere else was a coup staged to restore democracy“We are building democracy every day… I did not seize power to give money away to this or that person or take it as my own property.

“Although this government came from a seizure of power, it happened because there was no [effective] government [at the time]. Though there was a government, it was as good as not having one. Where was Yingluck [Shinawatra]? She couldn’t perform her duty” because she had been removed by the Constitution Court, Prayut said.

He added that people should recognise the fact that Thailand is still free.

Prayut rebuts US snub“, The Nation, January 28, 2015

Apart from being spouting what can only be described as an early contender for the most bafflingly preposterous thing said by the junta this year already (compare with last year’s entries), Gen. Prayuth also claimed that “as many as 21 envoys had met with the current administration and understood the situation in Thailand.”

And there lies the crux of this whole issue: Not only does the military junta – willingly or not – confuse acknowledgment of their rule with approval, but also doesn’t seem to care whether or not it actually further damages their credibility, which leads to the question who the military court is actually pandering to with their dizzying spin on the narrative?