Opinion: Thailand-US diplomatic spat a sign of cracks in junta’s confidence

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 29, 2015

Frankly speaking, I did not expect to be writing about this topic so quickly following my blog post from yesterday, but here I am again further musing on the delicate art of international diplomacy.

What happened on Wednesday morning though can be regarded as an escalation of some sort by the Thai military junta. After already voicing its displeasure about the critical remarks made by Daniel R. Russel, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the junta seemingly doubled down as the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned W. Patrick Murphy, the US chargé d’affaires, to voice their displeasure again.

We reported yesterday in detail about Russel’s visit and his remarks about the political situation in Thailand, so I won’t repeat them here. What does bear repeating though is that it was so far the highest-ranking US diplomat to come to Thailand since the military coup of May 2014 and the subsequent departure of former Ambassador Kristie Kenney. And it was this significance that gave Russel’s remarks considerable weight.

Apparently, two whole days and a tantrum by junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha (in which he called himself a “soldier with a democratic heart”!) later, the Thai powers-that-be threw the diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit with the summoning of the US Chargé d’affaires – a relatively normal procedure for any country wanting to give another country’s diplomats a high-level earful.

While both sides insist that it was not a summoning but rather an ”invitation” (more on that later), the public remarks by Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Don Paramatwinai were as blunt as they were contradictory:

According to the Thai Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russel’s remarks caused many Thais to be “worried and disappointed.”

“Mr. Russel spoke about politics, instead of using the opportunity to speak about good things, especially topics that promote the relationship between Thailand and the United States,” said Don, who used to serve as Thailand’s ambassador to Washington DC.

“The aforementioned speech did not benefit anyone. It became news that negatively affected the reputation of the country. It is deeply disappointing. It is an interference in Thailand’s politics.” (…)

“(…) The United States does not understand Thailand’s political situation.”

“If we comply with the [US] and lift martial law and it leads to problems, how will those people who are asking for the lifting of martial law take responsibility?” Don said. “In reality, Thais don’t even know there is martial law. A majority of Thais accept it and are not worried by it. The people who are worried about it are the minority.” (…)

“I insist that the military takeover in Thailand is not a coup, theoretically speaking,” he said. “It was in fact a revolution to install stability.”

Thai Military Govt Summons US Diplomat After “Disappointing Speech””, Khaosod English, January 28, 2015

So, apart from the fact that he claims that Thais both are unaware yet aware enough to be not bothered by the ongoing martial law and his rather curious definition of a hostile military takeover, he gives the impression that any criticism against the junta’s work is forbidden.

The junta Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth himself later beat the same old schtick as well:

“It saddens me that the United States does not understand the reason why I had to intervene and does not understand the way we work, even though we have been close allies for years,” Prayuth told reporters.

Thailand warns U.S. to mind its own business over politics”, Reuters, January 28, 2015

Ah yes, ”they don’t understand Thailand!” That’s the old killer argument to discredit any rational debate on political progress regression in recent years, no matter from where it comes from.

Of course it’s incredibly naive to still regard the United States as infallible world police considering its track record this past decade alone, but that does not and should not lessen the validity of their criticism nor does it or should it lessen the severity of the Thai junta’s repressive actions ever since the coup.

It is evident that the military junta responds to criticism with the only way the army knows best: resorting to assertive bullying tactics as a demonstration of absolute, undisputed power. But that is just a sign that the junta is overzealous yet very insecure, as simple silence might have been a better option in this case.

Also, a “summons” or “invitation” by the Thai military government is still something entirely different to a foreign ambassador than it is for any Thai citizen. And as if it were trying to prove it point, the junta has summoned Surapong Tovichakchaikul, former Thai foreign minister under Yingluck Shinawatra, for his recent criticism of the junta. A military officer was quoted nonchalantly saying that Surapong may be “let go home, or invited to stay overnight at our camp to adjust his attitude (…).”

To go back to my original point: a certain nuanced approach is required when dealing with international relations. US diplomat Russel opined that relations with Thailand ”have been challenged by the military coup”, not a surprise given the downgrade in diplomatic and military relations ever since.

It’s called ”diplomatic” for a reason when one tries to bring across a criticism in the least offensive way possible. But to respond to that with an indignant outburst of hurt national pride is quite the opposite of that and – given the junta’s ongoing quest got international approval – distances it from any serious endorsement whatsoever.