Trump’s Wake-Up Call to Thailand

At top, then candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone at a Feb. 18, 2016, campaign stop. Photo: Associated Press. Below, then army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha uses a phone in 2013. Photo: Matichon

Consider US President Donald Trump’s phone call last month to junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha a wake-up call, an alarm bell even.

It served notice that we can’t rely on the United States to support democracy in Thailand when democracy and human rights get in the way of America’s national interests and geopolitics.

Thailand may have become too chummy with China and Uncle Sam simply doesn’t want to see the kingdom become too dependent on Beijing, submarines or otherwise. Or maybe it was simply as it was presented, one of several phone-a-friend calls from Trump to regional partners to make common cause against North Korean provocations.

On Thursday evening, while sharing a lovely evening at a reception at the Canadian ambassador’s residence, I asked Amy A. Smith of American rights group Fortify Rights, what she thought of Trump’s phone call as an American.

“Dude,” she replied casually and with a sense of humor. “It’s a total meltdown. I am applying for asylum in Thailand.”

Another American, Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said US foreign policy toward the region is now a “ghost ship.” Robertson refuses to abandon hope, however. His hope is pinned not on Trump changing his mind about collaborating with the likes of Prayuth but on being impeached and ousted before he can cause more damage.

On a wider scale – and even before Trump was elected – author Brian Klass, yet another American and a fellow at the London School of Economics, concluded quite prophetically in his 2016 book “The Despot’s Accomplice: How The West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy,” that the West is not helping matters in Thailand or elsewhere, such as Madagascar, Tunisia and Belarus.

“Thailand’s short-term prospects are dim partly because the West is only thinking short-term too,” Klass wrote.

Klass later added in the book, which includes some interviews with me conducted after the 2014 coup, that, “… [O]nce the West acts as an accomplice to these undemocratic crimes across the globe, we all become victims of the shared costs of authoritarian rule.”

While Klass urged Western voters to demand change in how their governments interact with the rest of the world, I would like to urge Thais to be more independent and self-reliant.

Trump or no Trump, Thais should be more self-reliant and stop waiting for any superpower to save us. No one, abroad or at home, can save the kingdom and turn Thailand into a genuinely free and democratic society if the vast majority simply expect others to do the onerous job for them.

The hero-worshipping mentality subscribed by too many Thais has become a liability, turning this land into a society of spectators. Many follow the latest political twists as if they were simply following the latest HBO series.

What we need is a leader-rich society, not a society of followers and spectators.

Forget about Trump. The future of Thailand will not be decided by Washington – or Beijing for that matter. The future of Thailand will not be decided by a handful of anti-junta activists or the intelligentsia. It will be eventually determined by the masses, who can choose to continue to be subservient to an illegitimate regime or do something about it.

It’s been nearly three years since the self-styled National Council for Peace and Order seized power. Trump or no Trump, the battle for change will eventually be fought here by ordinary Thais whose patience has its limits as well.

Consider Trump’s phone call a wake-up call, not to Prayuth but to millions of Thais. And we ought to thank Donald Trump for the reminder.