A much-needed correction in Thailand’s erratic course

Next month, the United States will host a summit in California with the 10 ASEAN nations. The White House says the Sunnylands meeting will advance the administration’s rebalance to Asia and the Pacific, and reinforce what U.S. ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian calls, “a new normal.” But despite the attention that breathless headlines about the U.S. pivot to Asia have grabbed, what cannot be considered normal is the sharp deterioration in U.S. ties with key ASEAN member Thailand, and an exasperating Thai proclivity to escalate it.

Since the 2014 coup to oust former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and install Prayuth Chan-o-cha in power, the flashpoints between Thailand and the U.S. have included everything from human rights violations to corruption and the business climate, from air safety to compromised democratic principles.

The most recent blunder revolves around Thailand’s investigation of U.S. ambassador Glyn Davies in December, following his public remarks about Thai lesè majesté laws, and shows just how precarious the lack of freedoms has become for ordinary Thais – and how difficult cooperation has become with Thai leaders who find it just as easy to align with China.

The Davies case stunned even those observers who are all too familiar with how the Thai military junta operates. Davies’ remarks at a Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand dinner in November included a criticism of how the Prayuth government is interpreting and applying Thailand’s long-standing lesè majesté laws, while silencing any dissent that “insults the monarchy” with disproportionate and severe sentencing. These cases now include that of 27-year-old Thanakorn Siripaiboon, who has not been seen since the December 8 arrest at his home just south of Bangkok; authorities deny any knowledge of his whereabouts after he was accused of crimes that include a Facebook “like” violating lesè majesté laws.

That Thai officials would open an investigation targeting a U.S. diplomat for violating the lesè majesté laws – essentially, for speaking about potential abuses of those same lesè majesté laws – isn’t foolish, ironic, bold or some combination thereof. It’s a tactical threat that shows just how much the United States, at all echelons of power, has failed to assert its interests as the polarity between America and Thailand continues to grow.

Thailand is still a longtime American ally in the region and, to be sure, continues to protect its rapport with the West on key issues. The framework of the U.S.-Thailand Strategic Dialogue, also in December, supported Thailand’s stake as a regional leader and welcomed the U.S. role in its stabilization. The discussions affirmed the need for defense cooperation, specifically noting air and maritime concerns in the South China Sea, and the continued military expectation of mutual reliance and shared resources.

However, American officials need commitment from a birdlike Thailand that’s flitting between the two hands that feed it. Meanwhile, Thailand desperately needs a maturity in its international affairs that respects that any either-or posturing or ultimatums benefit no one, least of all itself as the Thai economy continues to flounder and Prayuth’s regime faces emerging environmental challenges that require a global response. The magnitude of those challenges, and in many ways inseparable from them, demands that Thailand comply with the West’s expectation of comprehensive reform on human rights abuses and corruption.

Surprisingly, despite Thailand’s strategic importance, the U.S. Congress has been manifestly silent in addressing both the country’s human rights violations and the exaggerated claims levied against Ambassador Glyn Davies. Except for a curt statement put out by Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs after the May 2014 coup and two hearings organized by the Senate and the House shortly after, Thailand’s political crisis has fallen off Washington’s radar.

Obama, in particular, has been light in his criticism of Thailand and has sat back and watched Paween Pongsirin flee Thailand to seek asylum in Australia. Paween, the top Thai police official responsible for investigating human trafficking crimes, said he fears for his life after discovering, that many senior Thai officials and influential Thai citizens are implicated in Thailand’s notorious trafficking rings. Meanwhile, Prayuth has urged Paween to return with the promise of a full investigation, even as he cast aspersions on Paween’s patriotism and Thai authorities explored criminal charges against Paween.

The upcoming U.S.-ASEAN summit is an opportunity for this administration to make a last ditch attempt to reverse his attitude towards Thai politics, and send a message both to the junta and regional leaders that the US will not stand for human rights abuses and undemocratic leadership and will seek to assert its influence in its pivot to Asia. Perhaps Congress could prod the Obama administration in the right direction?


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