BANGKOK — America’s handling of its relations with Thailand’s military regime is Exhibit A on how it adheres to the principles of human rights and democracy over short-term gains, a mid-rank American diplomat told me last week at a reception.
The remark prompted me to refer to Exhibit B – U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam earlier this week.
It’s obvious Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is a repressive regime. It’s a one-party state with about 100 political prisoners and a number of dissidents kept under house arrest while the media is less free than that in Thailand under dictator Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.
As Obama landed in Hanoi on Sunday, Amnesty International said waves of arrests against political dissidents continued.
“Even as it faces the glare of global attention with the U.S. President’s visit, the Vietnamese authorities, shamefully, are carrying out their repressive business as usual,” said Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia Rafendi Djamin in a statement released on Monday.
The United States is using Vietnam to help contain China, however, and that’s supposedly a priority for them.
When it comes to defending its geopolitical interests, including access to the South China Sea, Uncle Sam won’t let “petty issues” such as human rights violations and lack of democracy get in the way. Although Obama urged the leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party in a speech in Hanoi to allow for greater freedoms, including respect human rights, the meat is in the lifting of a five-decade arms embargo and sale of 100 Boeing civilian transport jets to Vietnamese airline VietJet, worth USD$11 billion.
While America uses Vietnam to help contain China, Vietnam also uses America to do the same. That’s real politik.
Thais should know this well, as during the Cold War, dictator Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, known for throwing his opponents to rot in jail and even executing some without waiting for judge to decide, was basically America’s boy. Sarit was good as long as he keeps the commies, including Vietnam at that time, at bay.
Even today, when you hear America speak about foreign policy, you should take Uncle Sam’s words with a big grain of salt, preferably from Salt Lake City. Think of the horror of de facto indefinite detention without judicial review at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray, where the liberty and rights afforded by America’s great constitution didn’t apply. Think of the myth of comic heroes like Captain America.
This doesn’t mean that there’s an absolute lack of sincerity in U.S. foreign policy. The American diplomat was right in saying the United States sticks to its principle when it comes to dealing with Prayuth. The thing is, if the Americans can preach about human rights elsewhere and still manage to maintain strategic interests, then it’s a win-win, and Uncle Sam has no qualm hitting the high note, as in the case of Juntaland, oops… Thailand – for now.
Thailand is not an important pawn in the region now, so US Ambassador Glyn T. Davies didn’t budge and delivered Uncle Sam’s message to the Thai junta in the most American way – in your face – or more specifically, in the face of Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai on May 12 in front of a throng of reporters.
I understand why middle-age junta supporters were upset and visited the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok on Monday to demand Davies be expelled from Bangkok. They must think the Americans are rude and don’t understand the political repression that to them is and must be an essential part of “civilized” Thai culture.
Sarcasm aside, when it comes to Thais dealing with the United States, there’s little nuance to talk about and that’s a shame.
On one hand, you are a patriot if you roundly reject U.S. human rights complaints because it is a hypocritical Evil Empire which only takes up such issues to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. Some, like influential pro-junta newspaper columnist Plew Seengern even accused the United States of being pro-Thaksin/Yingluck Shinawatra and supporting the establishment of a Thai Republic in his column Tuesday.
“The only thing the U.S. isn’t spelling out clearly is that the work to overthrow the [monarchy] is the direct ‘goal’ of the United States,” Plew wrote.
On the other hand, you must be a traitor, or an American lackey, to agree with America’s critical and in-your-face stance against the junta. Pro-democracy activists also tend to portray the United States in a positive-only fashion on social media in their criticism of anti-American protesters.
America can still be a force for good if engaged with wisely and properly, despite its hegemonic side, but let us not see this long-time ally in either black or white.
As with most things, a simplistic rendering of America as either good or evil is inadequate for the handling of a complex world. It’s more of the simplistic black-and-white, us-against-them, good-versus-evil that has fueled the deep schism in Thai politics and society during the past decade.
Thais can be critical of the junta as well as the United States. Prayuth and the anti-American protesters were right when they said Thailand is not a colony of the United States. Neither is it a colony of the junta, however.
We can be critical of both.