Washington gets tough with its longtime ally as junta rides roughshod over human rights
Thailand has been uninvited from the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) in Hawaii — the world’s largest international maritime-warfare exercise — this week, in response to spiraling human-rights abuses in the wake of last month’s military coup.
The ban only affects the two or three Thai military observers slated to attend the exercise, nonetheless, in diplomatic terms the snub — to America’s oldest treaty partner in Asia — is a very pointed one.
“We take very seriously the whole human-rights aspect to this coup in Thailand,” U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney tells TIME. “One of the things our government has done is look at our military engagements.”
Washington has already blocked $4.7 million in security-related aid to Thailand, accounting for roughly half its total annual assistance. But more significantly, the U.S. has made it clear that significant progress toward elections must be seen if next year’s high-profile Cobra Gold exercises are to go ahead.
Beginning as a bilateral U.S.-Thai exercise in 1982, Cobra Gold has become the largest military exercise in the Asia-Pacific region. It is held in Thailand annually and involved almost 30 regional players last year. However, 2015’s Cobra Gold is “under review,” says Kenney, and “will be a tough call at very senior levels in Washington.”
The cancellation of Cobra Gold would be hugely embarrassing for Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who on May 22 launched the Southeast Asian nation’s 12th military coup since the end of absolute monarchical rule in 1932. Martial law has been imposed, the constitution suspended, with academics, politicians and activists arbitrarily detained.
“One of our great concerns right now is that these detentions continue — the restrictions on freedom of expression, the martial-law restrictions on freedom of assembly.” says Kenney. “So it is really troubling, [as is] the fact that there’s not clear accountability for who is detained and who is released.”
General Prayuth has insisted that the military will remain in charge for at least a year while urgent “reforms” are enacted. A budget and a list of urgent infrastructure projects are being drawn up, while a draconian “clean up” of everything from petty crime to aggressive illegal taxi operators that target tourists (the so-called taxi mafia) appears to be on the cards.
Washington, however, wants a civilian government in power as soon as possible. “Our focus at this point is encouraging the current governing council of Thailand to move power into civilian hands and stop the restrictive measures,” Kenney says. “We want to see Thailand back in a leadership position as a democracy in Asia.”
The crackdown on civil liberties has led to calls for greater international support from those aligned with the ousted government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her divisive brother Thaksin.
Jakrapob Penkair, a founding member of the pro-Shinawatra Red Shirt movement and a former government minister now living in exile, has helped launch the anticoup Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy, which he says is in discussions with five Western governments about how best to return democracy in Thailand.
“[The West] is more aware [than Asian nations] of the tricks and games that are being played in Thailand now,” he told a meeting at Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong on Thursday. “We have to work from outside in, because no one in Thailand can move as they are being so repressed.”
On Thursday, the BBC published an interview with junta council member Lieut. General Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, who rejected Yellow Shirt leader Suthep Thaugsuban’s claims that military intervention had been planned since 2010.
He also said Thaksin was welcome to return to his homeland and fight a tax-evasion conviction linked to the sale of his telecom company during his tenure as Prime Minister.
Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer who represents the Red Shirts and formerly also Thaksin, said he would “relish” defending his erstwhile client “if it was in a rule-of-law court before an independent tribunal.”
Speaking alongside Jakrapob in Hong Kong, he said “The judges [during Thaksin’s 2007 in absentia conviction] were specifically appointed from a small group of people whose qualifications were based upon their antipathy to Thaksin,” adding that Thaksin “never had any independent review of the allegations.”
The United States and European Union have responded to the coup by announcing they will downgrade their relations with Thailand.
Individual countries that have also issued strongly worded statements against the coup include the UK, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A closer look reveals that the Europeans and Americans have joined forces to apply pressure on Thailand to hold an election as quickly as possible, release all political detainees, and ensure freedom of expression. The penalty for not doing so will be the imposition of more measures to isolate Thailand from the international community.
This international pressure against Thailand is totally unjustified. Thailand has so far done nothing to harm the broad interests of the US or the EU. Business leaders representing the foreign chambers of commerce in Thailand have expressed confidence in the direction being taking to restore calm to the country.
Without the coup, political polarization would have got worse and threatened to tear apart the fabric of the social order. The authorities continue to discover caches of war weapons and ammunition around the country, stockpiled by hard-core supporters of the previous government. These weapons were intended to be used to create violence in Bangkok by militia following what is generally known as the Khon Kaen model. Through this arrangement, the armed rebels would stage a takeover of the 20 provinces in the Northeast in defiance of the Bangkok centre. No country in the world would allow this to happen. Isn’t this model similar to what the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is trying to achieve in the war-torn nations of Iraq and Syria?
By pressuring Thailand to hold an election without first forging political reforms, the US and the EU are effectively asking that Thailand remain a divided nation. A weak and polarised Thailand could, indeed, benefit the US and EU. It would fit world powers’ traditional divide-and-rule formula.
The blatant interference in our internal affairs by superpowers in the Western world is unacceptable. As a sovereign and independent nation, Thailand has every right to put its house in order in its own way. Public opinion is mostly in favour of the coup, which has effectively restored order and ended the bloodshed. Now, the Thai people are looking forward to a reform process that hopefully will lay the foundation for political, economic and social stability. All now depends on the commitment and the capability of the military regime to guide Thailand through this transition.
It is likely that US and EU relations with Thailand will deteriorate over the next three to six months. This is unfortunate. A slackening of ties would also hurt the overall standing of the Asean, with Thailand being at the core of the regional bloc. Other Asean members have so far stood idle while Thailand is bullied. If the US and EU continue to play hardball politics with Thailand, and Asean proves to be a paper tiger, Thailand might have no choice but to strengthen relations with China or Russia. The BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are eager to expand their membership and should ready to welcome Thailand into the fold. If Thailand is driven into a corner, it will have no choice but to walk a new path in its international relations.
- Thai general denies military coup was planned – In-Depth–BBC News, Jun 25, 2014
- Thailand’s military ruler sets election for October 2015 – Macleans.ca