The U.S. and Thailand: warm relations but Thailand stays the same

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Thailand’s PM, General Prayuth Chan-ocha

Although General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s meeting with President Trump, which was supposed to take place in late July, has been postponed, Thailand’s relations with the United States still appear warmer now than at any time since the country’s 2014 coup.

Back then, in May 2014, Prayuth and other officers ousted an elected government, headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which had been buffeted by street protests in Bangkok for months. This past April, the Trump administration issued an invite to General Prayuth for a White House visit. This was a break with the Obama administration, which had not hosted the coup leader in Washington, and which had kept some broader distance from Bangkok, reducing the size of joint military exercises, and taking other steps to curtail ties to the Thai junta. (Relations had been coming out of the post-coup freeze at the end of the Obama years, however.) In addition, even though Prayuth’s visit was delayed, Thai and U.S. officials, from the Department of State and the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, held a session of their strategic dialogue in July.

Yet the reasons for a recent warming of U.S.-Thailand relations do not demonstrate that much has really changed in Thailand’s stagnant politics, or in the slow-growing Thai economy. The country remains as troubled as it has been for the past fifteen years, its economy lagging behind regional competitors and its politics regressing to army and royal rule – with no real end in sight . Meanwhile, neighbors like Myanmar embrace democratic reforms while other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia post much stronger economic growth rates.

Instead, the return to warmer relations has more to do with how the new US administration views human rights and democracy promotion, as well as the longstanding importance of Thailand, a longtime U.S. treaty ally, to the US military’s Pacific operations. In February, the head of US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, attended the annual Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand, the longtime centerpiece of US-Thai military to military relations. Washington also recently approved new sales of US Black Hawk helicopters to the Thai military. Given that the Obama administration had made limiting U.S. participation in Cobra Gold a sign of Washington’s cooler approach to the junta, having the head of Pacific Command attend was, as the military publication Stars and Stripes noted, a potential signal that the US military – and the White House – want to fully restore US-Thai links.

To be sure, Thailand remains strategically important to the United States. Bangkok is home to a massive U.S. embassy complex and the regional headquarters of many U.S. agencies. Thailand has bases that could be critical for U.S. forces in the event of a major conflict in Southeast Asia.

Still, Thailand shows no real signs of putting its politics back on course toward democracy and long-term stability, or of righting its economy either. After pushing through a new constitution last year that was approved by the Thai public - but in a referendum clearly weighted to ensure the military’s charter passed - the armed forces have entrenched themselves to dominate politics for decades. Elections could theoretically be held late next year, as junta leaders indeed once promised. But the timetable remains unclear, and Prayuth may wind up the longest-serving Thai coup leader in decades.  

Some Thailand experts, like Shawn Crispin of Asia Times, have suggested that the junta actually will push back elections eve farther. Crispin notes that polls conducted by a military unit with the Prime Minister’s Office have shown that if an election is held, Peua Thai, the party of the Shinawatra family, with its power base in the populous Thai north and northeast – and the party that controlled government before the coup – would likely win a free vote.

Even if it does allow elections, the army has taken other steps to make sure it holds the cards in politics anyway. Any future government, even an elected one, will have to contend with an upper, unelected house of parliament created by the new charter, and likely packed with pro-military senators. Prayuth’s regime has overseen a trial of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, forced out in 2014, for supposedly mismanaging a government rice subsidy proposal; it is  difficult to imagine a court in junta-run Thailand finding Yingluck innocent, and she would then probably be kept out of politics during a next election, whenever that occurs. (The verdict  in Yingluck’s trial may be delivered in late August.) Meanwhile, the current, military-installed legislature, which is serving as a kind of placeholder before elections, has approved the creation of a new 20-year national strategy, to be written by a commission chaired by – wait for it – General Prayuth. The strategy is expected to outline some of Thailand’s long-term economic and social goals, but it is also widely expected to provide mechanisms for the military to retain a level of oversight of any elected government.

Making matters even more complicated – and possibly anti-democratic - the new king, Rama X, who ascended to the throne late last year after the passage of his long-ruling father, has given some vague indications that the moarch, too, wants to wield some real power. He has shown these signs even though Thailand is technically a constitutional monarchy. As Claudio Sopranzetti of Oxford University has noted, the new king “ demanded changes to a constitutional draft” [i.e, the new charter] – changes that now “cancel the need for a parliamentary counter-signature to royal orders, and re-establish royal crisis powers [...] including the ability to impose executive and legislative vetoes and the right to dissolve the legislative assembly.”

These are potentially vast powers; as Sopranzetti notes, they technically give the new king far greater powers than his father had. They also could further inhibit any restoration of democratic rule, in Thailand, leading to alternative scenarios, both of which could be bad: One in which the king and military leaders work together to hold power; and one, in which the palace and some army leaders engage in behind-the-scenes political warfare that remains opaque and undemocratic.

The army rulers have shown little sign they have the answers to Thailand’s economy, either, and the former export powerhouse has slowed down. Exports grew by less than 0.5 percent year on year in 2016, and Thailand is projected to grow much more slowly than neighbors like Malaysia and the Philippines between now and 2019. Investors in Thailand have been spooked  by the years of political turmoil before the 2014 coup and the future uncertainty.

Meanwhile, the junta’s tough approach to dissent, including some of the harshest restrictions on online speech in Asia, makes Thailand potentially a hard sell for some big tech investors - even though Prayuth’s government, recognizing that Thailand needs to move into higher-value industries, has rolled out a “Thailand 4.0” strategy. (That strategy seeks to woo investment in many information technology sectors.)

The country’s education system, particularly outside Bangkok, remains poorly suited for upgrading the economy, yet the junta has focused its attention mostly on Bangkok and the neighboring eastern seaboard – perhaps because the north and northeast are hotbeds of support for the Shinawatra family. Prayuth may have won Trump’s favor, but he has not put the country in a positive direction.