By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer
BANGKOK — Activists and academics say they are confident that U.S. policy toward the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha will be adjusted but not drastically changed after what appeared to be a cordial meeting late last month between Prayuth and the new U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Glyn Davies.
Following the Oct. 29 meeting, some observers are seeing in the American gesture a more tactful or calculated handling of ties, while one called for more “concrete” measures against the military regime.
Thailand Just Not That Important
Suthachai Yimprasert, a Chulalongkorn University history professor, said he doubts the United States will turn a blind eye to democracy, human rights, free expression and free assembly like it did during the Cold War to prop up successive Thai military dictators to counter perceived communist threats.
“Thailand is not that important to America’s interests, as compared to Egypt where the [U.S.] government is worried about Islamists and decided to stick with military dictators,” Suthachai said. Should Washington gravitate closer toward the Thai junta, he added, it would be counterproductive to its national interests.
Although the United States has made more overtures to the junta than the European Union and Australia, Suthachai said the U.S. government is limited by its laws on how closely it can engage with an unelected government.
Activist Pakorn Areekul was among 14 activists and students detained for 13 days in June for protesting against the junta. A central figure in the New Democracy Movement, Pakorn said he’s confident the U.S. government and embassy will continue to pay special interest to the problems of human rights and democracy in Thailand.
Although no one among his activist group has met Ambassador Davies yet, Pakorn said embassy staff are in contact with them by telephone and seem genuinely concerned with the situation.
On Sept. 19, when the group staged a protest to commemorate the September 2006 coup, the group received a call from the embassy.
“The ambassador has a duty to protects American interests, so he has to meet Prayuth,” Pakorn said.
Like Suthachai, Pakorn said he doesn’t believe Washington will support Prayuth like they did Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in the 1960s or Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn in the 1970s.
“Back then [the U.S.] chose Thailand as a buffer against communism,” he said. “Take Myanmar today, where America was instrumental in pushing for elections, however.”
Pakorn said the Americans know Thailand will eventually have to return to a democratic system, and the junta does not dare sever its ties with the United States because it would reduce its leverage with other powers.
“America’s policy toward Thailand has two legs,” he concluded.
Politicians like former Pheu Thai MP and Redshirt co-leader Weng Tojirakarn said global powers don’t change their foreign policy overnight.
Weng said the United States still regards itself as the leader of the Free World.
“I don’t believe that it will support anything that destroys democracy,” he said.
A Softer Stance as China Looms
Thammasat University lecturer of International Relations Virot Ali believes the arrival of Davies signifies a softer and more tactful U.S. approach to the junta, compared to former U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney who was “stern” toward the coup leaders.
“He’s rather compromising and constructive,” Virot said of Davies.
It’s unlikely a coincidence, Virot said, that Davies was nominated to the post after nearly three years assigned to global problem child North Korea.
“He has the ability to foster dialogue, so his stance is constructive,” Virot said.
Virot also pointed that Davies was instrumental in opposing sanctions against Thailand in the aftermath of the 2006 coup.
At the time Davies’ litmus test for imposing sanctions was based on clear action to return power to the people, as he supported sanctions against Fiji when it suffered a coup d’etat three months after Thailand in December 2006.
He defended slapping Fiji’s junta with sanctions in August 2007 testimony to a U.S. congressional subcommittee on Asian affairs.
“Unlike in the case of Thailand, Fiji’s coup leaders have taken no credible steps to quickly restore democratic rule, other than a vague promise to hold elections in 2009,” he said at the time.
“He’s here to rein in this government in order to not cross the line,” Virot said. “It reflects the fact that [Thailand] is having problems.”
From what Davies told the press after meeting Prayuth, it appears his government wants to repair damaged ties with Thailand, Virot said, and if they continue to talk tough, Thailand will only move closer into China’s sphere of influence.
“I think they’re trying to re-engage with the ‘pivot to Asia.’”
That Obama Doctrine of disengaging from post-9/11 footing to focus on the Asia Pacific, is now being tested. Détente in the South China Sea is under threat as American and Chinese interests come into direct conflict, and Washington needs to keep its deck stacked with friends.
Virot said the United States is now in “constructive engagement” with the Thai junta, using the same term once applied to Burma under military rule. All that considered, however, he doesn’t think U.S. diplomacy will choose to ignore what’s happening in the kingdom.
“It will continue to warn the Thai government,” he said, adding that diplomatic engagement with Thailand is a two-way track.
Clarity, Credibility Sacrificed for Expediency
Not all pro-democracy activists are enamored with Washington’s handling of the junta, however.
Human rights lawyer and anti-coup activist Arnon Nampa is not impressed with the low-key pressure being applied, especially compared to the heat coming from the European Union and its member states. He said the United States appears too eager to defend its own strategic interests over maintaining its claim to support democracy around the world out of fear of losing Bangkok to Beijing.
“The United States should take a clearer stance regarding its demands [to the military government] and not just vaguely say there should be greater room for freedom of expression,” Arnon said.
At the same time, Arnon said, the junta is not eagerly giving itself over to China, as evident from its reluctance to purchase Chinese submarines.
The United States is shrewd to talk about freedom, Arnon said, but must make concrete statements about the junta’s violations of human rights.
“There should be concrete sanctions against it,” Arnon said. “Greater pressure should be exerted. Even their demands are vague.”