Since the coup of 2014, the Thai political situation has greatly deteriorated, particularly the violations of basic human rights. The U.S. government has imposed sanctions against the military regime of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, but they were criticized as being too soft. To lessen the impacts of Western sanctions, Thailand has moved closer into the orbit of China. The strengthening of the two countries’ relationship has intensified the anxiety of Washington about its own interests in Thailand. A shift in position of the U.S. in the Thai crisis is needed.
Recently, a more assertive position from the U.S. might have signaled the shift in the American view vis-à-vis the Thai political stalemate. The new U.S. ambassador to Bangkok, Glyn Davies, has proven to be more critical of the Thai situation than many would have expected. He repeatedly expressed disquiet about the shrinking democratic space in Thailand. He also reached out to alternative forces in Thai politics. Pro-junta groups were infuriated by Davies’s role, seeing it as an act of interference in Thai domestic politics.
In a broader context, the shift also reflects the reality in the Thai-U.S. relations. During the Cold War, the U.S. forged its close alliance with the Thai military and the powerful old elite while compelling the government of the day to formulate a pro-American, anti-communist, and even anti-democracy policy—all were carried out in the name of containing the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Consequently, Thailand endured a series of despotic regimes in order to satisfy the U.S. government and to receive generous military aid. When the Cold War was over, the U.S. continued to uphold its intimate relationship with Thailand’s established forces, believing that they represented the U.S.’s long-term interests in this country.
The U.S.’s pro-elite standpoint explained why it did not come out harshly against the military coup of September 2006 that overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Perhaps, because Thaksin was a threat to the Bangkok elite, he thus was also a threat to the American interests. And indeed, since the 2006 coup, the U.S. remained relatively silent about the worsening situation in Thailand.
In looking back, despite a strong bilateral foundation, Thai-U.S. relations were confined within an old structure and simply taken for granted. Whereas bilateral relations have been amicable, at a deeper level, new developments, either domestic or international, are gradually reshaping long-established ties. Rapid democratization and economic development in Thailand have in recent years paved the way for a more open society and the emergence of new political players. Yet, U.S. leadership failed to appreciate these new changes.
The U.S. has probably learned that the Thai public, whether associated with the “yellow” or “red” political movements, has become more engaged in the political process than ever before and has more influence on public and foreign policy. Sadly, the old establishment in Thailand has still been trapped in a Cold War mindset that expects the U.S. to maintain its pro-elite position. In the meantime, Thailand has become a more mature society, even today as the country is in the custody of the military.
A key question here is what long-term goal the United States should set for its relationship with Thailand. If the U.S. government wishes to maintain lasting influence in the region in the face of a rising China, it is critical that Washington encourages democratic reforms in Thailand, even if this policy means that Thailand under the junta grows closer to China in the short term. Allowing an authoritarian regime to take root in Thailand opens the door for a possible coalition of anti-democratic regimes in the region to challenge good governance, which in turn would jeopardize U.S. interests. Ultimately, the United States needs Thailand as a partner in tackling a range of important issues, from combatting terrorism to ensuring freedom of navigation in Southeast Asian waters.
Given this context, the United States may want to review its current sanctions policy to ensure that the latter will not impede the process of democratization. Stricter sanctions that specifically target top military elites in the current government, including freezing assets and excluding them from international forums, could be an option for the U.S. government in dealing with the Thai junta. Moreover, the U.S. may consider downgrading its military involvement with Thailand. The United States’ suspension of the Cobra Gold joint military exercise and continued Thai exclusion from RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific exercise) would encourage the military regime to reconsider its political intervention. Cobra Gold has long served as the bedrock of the bilateral relationship. Suspending the exercise would send a serious message that Washington wishes to see rapid political developments in Thailand.
Ultimately, Washington may need to set its long-term strategy toward Thailand. Unless Thailand becomes a democratic country again, the United States risks losing its influence and ultimately its strategic interests in Southeast Asia. Therefore, pushing for a return to democracy in Thailand should be the ultimate goal of the United States. In so doing, the U.S. needs to keep a watchful eye on the constitutional crisis in Thailand, even after the constitution that was approved in the referendum on August 7, as well as the next steps in the country’s roadmap drawn by the military government. The terrorist attacks in Thailand on August 12 reaffirms that the U.S. still needs Thailand to combat terrorist networks. If Thailand does not become democratic soon, it could open itself to terrorism, which will have a huge impact on the U.S.’s interests in the region.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. As originally published https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/asia/shift-us-policy-needed-1093