By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer
BANGKOK — When the leader of Thailand’s junta arrives in California tomorrow for the first ASEAN summit held on U.S. soil, its critics agree that it signals no softening in Washington’s approach to the regime, but warn that pro-democracy forces must rely on themselves rather than Western support.
International relations experts generally agree that Thais who want power returned to the people cannot expect it to happen under pressure from Western governments. Instead most hope American officials take the opportunity Monday and Tuesday to remind Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to keep his promises this time when it comes to holding a free and fair vote on the draft charter and general elections next year.
The question comes as Prayuth’s second visit to the United States next week will not be on United Nations’ business as in September but at the invitation of the Americans, who have played it cool and cordial with their longtime ally since the coup.
“I don’t think it constitutes a policy shift on part of the U.S., as all ASEAN leaders have been invited and the U.S. president is trying to engage with ASEAN as a bloc instead of on a state-by-state basis as China does,” said Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi, a lecturer of International Relations at Thammasat University. “I don’t think they will pay special attention to Thailand [during the summit].”
Indeed as Cold War maneuvering unfolds in the disputed South China Sea, Southeast Asia has become critical to the U.S. strategy of confronting China, and six of 10 ASEAN states – Thailand included – have yet to join a key part of that: the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
A Chulalongkorn University academic said the United States was merely providing a venue and by no means should be seen as shifting its policy toward Thailand’s junta.
“The National Council for Peace and Order will likely make use of the visit to their benefit, however,” said Puangthong Pawakapan, associate professor of international relations, using the junta’s formal name.
Another international relations expert expressed a similar view, saying that lumping Thailand in with the rest of ASEAN member states is a strategic approach.
“Southeast Asia is important to American strategic interests in Asia and the Pacific region and part of the ‘Asian Pivot’ to contain China,” said Thammasat University’s Virot Ali. ”Thailand is a partner in the region.”
Virot said while Washington will not sever ties with Thailand, the junta leader is unlikely to get a personal invitation to visit the United States either.
“There will probably be no special invitation. ASEAN members already know that they too need the United States, so this is not a softening of the stance of the U.S. [toward Thailand’s military regime],” Virot said.
All three academics said they want to see the United States, possibly President Obama, pressure Prayuth on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, which takes place Monday and Tuesday in Rancho Mirage, Calif., to ensure the promised referendum on the junta-sponsored draft charter will be conducted in a free and fair manner and pave the way for an elected government to take over by the end of 2017 or early 2018.
“The United States may not say it straight, but President Obama could express concerns about the transition to democracy, and it may be done vaguely during a closed door meeting. But they will definitely have to take a stance on the matter,” Pongkwan said.
On Friday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on Obama to use the summit as an opportunity to press Southeast Asian leaders to improve “press freedom as a precondition for developing stronger ties.”
Pongkwan however believes there’s not much the United States can do, adding that perhaps backdoor diplomacy with the conservative Thai elite may be more effective.
“I’m rather without hope when it comes to whether the United States will do more than just talk. We can’t just expect the U.S. [and E.U. as well as U.K.] to save us beyond making [Prayuth] look like a buffoon,” she said.
Locally, U.S. diplomats have reportedly played down the possibility of Obama singling out any specific ASEAN players for admonishment. Pongkwan remains hopeful that Obama, who’s in the twilight of his presidency, will take the opportunity to send a clear message.
“America is playing a two-legged strategy, and things are rather unclear,” the Thammasat lecturer said. “But Obama could do something for his legacy as he’s finishing his term.”
Thais Should Rely More on Themselves
Many of those interviewed said the Western powers of the United States, United Kingdom and European Union are only willing to go so far to oppose Thailand’s military junta as they have to consider their own economic and geopolitical interests. They advocate pro-democracy Thais do more than just sit and wait for change.
“While we must admit that these countries’ roles toward Thailand are important, what’s more important is the role of Thai people themselves,” said Rangsiman Rome, a leader of the New Democracy Movement. “If people in the country continue accepting the junta, it will make Prayuth appear legitimate.”
Similarly, Puangthong said the West doesn’t want to squeeze Thailand so hard it tilts further toward Beijing.
“I don’t want Thais to pin too much hope on Western nations. They have their own interests to defend, and they fear Thailand falling into China’s orbit,” she said.
Pongkwan too warned that any state will defend its own national interests first and foremost.
“They will probably recalibrate their policies [toward Thailand] if the junta stays beyond [its current promise to cede power at the end of 2017.].”
A longtime American scholar based in Khon Kaen said the challenge for the United States is to find a way to engage democratic forces in Thailand instead of giving in to just “treating Thailand as just one more authoritarian state in Southeast Asia.” After all, David Streckfuss said, Thai democracy may be flawed but it is also vibrant.
Streckfuss predicts the junta will not keep to its timetable.
“The military will continue to cite any reason to stay on in power [beyond 2017]. [The West] simply can’t get bored and back out,” he said, adding that the junta’s strategy seems to be to exhaust its opponents, both domestic and abroad.
In case the junta stays on long than its currently promising, Thammasat’s Virot believes the West could either step up its pressure or simply abandon Thailand as another despotic state as it did with Myanmar in the 1990s and build closer economic and political ties with Thailand’s neighbors.
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