President Trump’s decision to invite Thailand’s military ruler to the White House could have long-lasting effects on democracy’s prospects in Thailand.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the US capital on 2 October at the invitation of US President Donald Trump. The US really rolled out the red carpet to welcome the Thai junta for the first time since they took power in a 2014 coup that overthrew elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The invitation from the US arrived at a time when Thailand’s domestic politics defines its foreign policy. Encountering Western sanctions as a result of the coup, Thailand was obliged to move closer into the orbit of China, seeking the latter’s endorsement of the military regime in Bangkok. This has allowed China to entrench itself as part of maintaining its influence in Thailand.
From a broader perspective, Sino-American ties have served to shift the balance of power in this part of the world. A long list of grievances between the two countries – from the conflict in the South China Sea to the nuclear threat from North Korea – has fuelled the recent re-engagement of the US with Southeast Asian nations. The US under Trump, despite its lack of a clear foreign policy vision, sees the need to compete with China for its own dominance in the region.
The main mission of Prayuth’s visit to Washington was to have his regime ‘baptised’ by the US. Although Trump vaguely expressed his wish for democracy to return to Thailand, the real talking points, aside from the US legitimisation of the Thai junta, were centred on commercial profits between the two countries. It was reported that Thailand planned to purchase more military hardware from the US. Prayuth even said that Trump became Thailand’s “true friend”, reflecting the significance of Thailand as the US’ oldest ally in Asia.
The latest move by the US emphasised the American interventionist approach toward the Thai crisis. Since the 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, the US has not stopped interfering in Thai domestic affairs, an approach that is greatly different from China’s pragmatic stance. In the eyes of the US, Thailand’s key institutions must be protected – namely, the royal institution and the army.
Trump’s view of Thai politics reminds observers of how the US engaged with Thailand during the Cold War, when it perceived the monarchy and the military as its ultimate allies. The stability of these two institutions was key to the US campaign against communists, and today the US has not changed its mindset, seeing the two institutions as protectors of its interests. Even after the end of the Cold War, and following the new beginning in Thai politics with Thaksin emerging as a fresh political alternative, the US has not recognised new political players on the Thai scene, particularly after the coup of 2006.
Because of this attitude, the US has at times been criticised for compromising its own democratic principles due to its narrow national interest – and such an attitude has been exacerbated by China’s arrival on the Bangkok scene. For the US, punishing Thailand too harshly could push its ally deeper into China’s warm embrace. By cuddling up to the Thai junta itself, exemplified by Trump’s invitation to Prayuth, the US’ democratic commitment in Thailand seems to be eroding.
At the heart of the debate rest the issues of democratic recession and human rights abuses in Thailand. From the top of the political structure to Thailand’s little people on the streets, the junta has kept tight its grip on power over them. A month ago, deposed Yingluck ran away from her jail term, a decision that indicated that political trouble is far from over. Worse, the judicial system in Thailand is on the verge of collapsing.
Ordinary Thais are equally vulnerable. Political activists and democracy advocates became targets of the state. As an academic myself, I was punished by the Thai junta for my critical views of the military and the monarchy. They summoned me in the aftermath of the 2014 coup. When I rejected the summons, the junta issued a warrant for my arrest and revoked my passport. My case is just one of many where anti-coup sentiments were treated as threats to the state.
Unfortunately, such issues were conspicuously missing during the high-profile talk between Trump and Prayuth. Was this surprising? Perhaps not, if one considers whether democratic promotion genuinely ranks high in the US agenda. The outcome is disastrous for Thai democracy.
The junta is hedging China against the US, because it serves the Thai regime politically and prolongs its life. Unfortunately, it also poses an obstacle for pro-democracy forces both inside and outside Thailand to advance their course.
As Thailand leans toward China, nobody expects that Beijing would be interested in democratic progress in Bangkok. And now that the US openly supports the military regime in Thailand, our final hopes are gone for a brighter future for Thai democracy.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.