Analysis: US to play the long game with Thai military junta, but not forever

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 18, 2015

”YOU always meet twice in your life,” is a saying Germans used to tell each other, which can either be a simple figure of speech when two people say goodbye – or it can also be a reminder that no matter on what terms you part ways, you might have to settle your issues in the future.

When news broke that for the fifth Thailand-United States Strategic Dialogue a certain Daniel Russel would return to Bangkok, certain people within the Thai military government might have been seething at the announcement. The last time the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was in town, he left a particularly sour taste among the generals.

In January earlier this year – not quite a year after Thailand’s military seized power in the coup of May 2014 and half a year since junta leader Gen. Prayuth Cha-cha was made prime minister – Mr. Russel visited Southeast Asia, meeting with then-Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn and those political stakeholders that have been largely sidelined since the coup, namely toppled former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

However, Russel also gave a speech at Chulalongkorn University, in which he said in no uncertain terms that the military junta’s crackdown on dissenting opponents under (at that time still active) martial law and the apparent unwillingness to foster an inclusive political discourse is putting a dent in the long-running relationship between the two countries. And indeed the United States sent early signals of initial disapproval of the coup, suspending $3.5m in military aid (which is still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn) and scaling down the annual joint-military exercise ”Cobra Gold”.

These critical remarks led the Thai military government to throw a week-long overzealous, yet insecure temper tantrum, with Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth verbally retaliating by declaring himself to be a ”soldier with a democratic heart,” while being well aware that his ”government came from a [non-democratic] seizure of power,” but still telling that ”the United States doesn’t understand” what’s going on, only then to let his frustrations out by scolding Thai reporters again. At the same time, US Chargé d’affaires W. Patrick Murphy was summoned ”invited” by the Thai Foreign Ministry to receive a high-level earful and insisting to relabel the coup was a ”revolution to install stability”.

Eleven months later, Glyn T. Davies, an experienced diplomat, took over as ambassador, ending a 10-month vacancy that was less a snub against the Thai junta and more due to domestic political squabbles back in the States. However, his decisive criticism of the notorious lèse majesté law during his introduction at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) has drawn the wrath of ultra-nationalists, protesting at the US Embassy (and apparently the only ones allowed to do so) and even going so far as to file a lèse majesté complaint against Ambassador Davies – and even more amazingly, the police actually launched an inquiry.

With that in mind, the strategic talks earlier this week already came with some baggage – which might explain why the joint statement (which can be read in full here) after the six hours-talk has been rather nuanced in expressing what it agrees on, such as public health, disaster relief and combating human trafficking. Nevertheless, Mr. Russel himself made sure during a personal meeting with Prayuth that while the United States wishes to ”restore full engagement with Thailand,” it would only happen when it ”restores a civilian-led and democratic government,” and he also raised concerns on the ever-deteriorating human rights situation. Gen. Prayuth responded by explaining the junta’s ”reforms” to the political system before there’ll be any elections (if at all).

The current approach by the United States could hint at a few things: While the US maintains consistent concern over the dire human rights situation in Thailand, it also understands that things are not going to change politically anytime soon. Thus, the confirmation of Ambassador Davies was already an early sign that it needs an experienced diplomat to engage with a mostly uncompromising Thai military government that is going to stay longer than anybody initially anticipated – and his dealings with the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea before certainly could come in handy. Nevertheless, most Western countries have still stopped short from branding Thailand a pariah state, most likely to prevent from completely driving the country into the arms of both China and Russia.

But the U.S.’s patience isn’t infinite, as lawmakers back in Washington have already expressed their frustration at the lack of progress (or rather the reversal of any progress). In a rapidly changing  region (with one neighbor in particular) that comes with new geo-political challenges and economic potential, it requires multi-lateral cooperation from consistently reliable partners. One such ‘incentive’ could be brining Thailand into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional U.S.-led trade agreement that already has Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru on board – that is IF Thailand actually meets the requirements and the military government can convince their otherwise FTA-critical political supporters, who have been largely mum on this matter so far.

The visiting U.S. diplomat Daniel Russel went on record after the bilateral strategic talks, stating he got a “full and respectful hearing” by the Thai military government, a slight contrast in tone compared to his last visit in Bangkok. That should not be mistaken as a softened stance though. The U.S. is prepared to play the long game with the Thai junta, which is persistently solidifying its authoritarian rule. And that probably will lead to more chances to meet again in future – the question will be on what terms?

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