U.S. Policy toward Thailand after the May 22 Putsch: Part I

By Michael Montesano

Royal Thai Army soldiers in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand.

Royal Thai Army soldiers in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand. Source: Pittaya’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The operations of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta since its seizure of power in Thailand on May 22 have taken both foreign observers and many Thais aback, in both their tone and their substance. While no violence has accompanied either the junta’s moves to exert control over the country or resistance to those moves, its announcements summoning Thais to turn themselves in and its plan to try civilians before military courts have given Thailand’s latest coup a particularly sinister aspect. The junta has caused policymakers among Thailand’s traditional foreign partners cause for concern on two levels.

A number of Thailand’s partners are determined to do what they can both to mitigate human-rights violations under military rule and to forestall the possibility of bloodshed as the period of military rule stretches from weeks to months. They have been considering ways to leverage existing relationships in Thailand in pursuit of those goals. While understandable, such an approach suggests that these policymakers underestimate both the qualitative difference between this Thai putsch and earlier coups and the ambitions of the country’s newest military junta to reshape the Thai political order. Put more bluntly, it appears unwise to believe that relations with well-placed official contacts in Thailand can proceed on anything like the basis they had even a month ago.

On a second level, one to which foreign policymakers may have devoted less attention, those partners need to think through the future course of their friendships with Thailand. This process must take into account the specific tools that partner countries have to shape that friendship. In the case of the United States, these tools are not hard to identify. That few recognize them as tools at this critical time for Thailand testifies to the aimlessness with which Washington has approached its relationship with Bangkok for many years now.

The Department of State has criticized the putsch in terms that it considers strong. This remonstration has aroused negative sentiments toward the United States among many Thais who take a benign view of the recent armed seizure of state power in their country. These sentiments build on the negative perception of the United States’ place in Asia and enthusiasm for Chinese leadership in the region among Thai foreign policy elites, as captured in the recent CSIS report on Power and Order in Asia. There is little doubt that this perception is determined at least in part by official U.S. expressions of concern over the use of Thailand’s lèse majesté law in recent years.

Some in Thailand may accuse the United States of hypocrisy for its contrasting reactions toward the ouster of elected governments in Egypt and the Ukraine on one hand and Thailand on the other. At the same time, the State Department’s protests were consonant with values concerning political legitimacy held dear by the millions of Thais who have participated with a new level of engagement not only in national elections but also in provincial and sub-district elections during the past decade and a half. U.S. criticisms of the putsch put the United States in the company of a substantial segment of the Thai population; this segment does not labor under the anachronistic notions of “guided democracy” that seem to motivate the NCPO, and it will play a decisive role in Thailand’s political future.

It is not for the United States to intervene in Thai affairs to determine that future. The United States should, however, reaffirm its commitment to the values that it shares with millions of Thais and employ with new energy the tools that it created decades ago as a way to communicate those values.

The leader of the NCPO has recently proclaimed that Thailand and China are partners at every level. China watchers in Thailand have noted wryly that the junta has already “resumed sending tribute missions” to Beijing, while others in Bangkok have reported the omnipresence of Chinese officials in Bangkok in recent days. Some in Thailand’s foreign policy establishment understand the risks of falling too quickly into the embrace of China, and the caliber of Chinese diplomats posted to Thailand suggests that Beijing will also soon understand the risks of closely identifying with the Thai junta. This identification is already, however, a fact of history. And the undue haste with which this identification has been established presents the United States the opportunity to identify itself with another set of forces in Thailand, the forces whose cause history is likely to favor.

Mr. Michael Montesano served as a United States Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand during 1983-1985. He is now co-coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Part II of his analysis will include specific recommendations for U.S. policy.


8 comments for “U.S. Policy toward Thailand after the May 22 Putsch: Part I

  1. Sittichai
    June 15, 2014 at 08:50

    I’m disappointed that the USA and Europe has not done more, where are the visa bans on the coup leaders? The Chan Ocha family? Suthep? The rest? The Ammart are still free to send their kids to Oxford, yet we are not free to even dare criticize the coup!
    Where is the trade sanctions? Even the harsh words?

    Today we were told by NIDA polls that we are 93% happy with the coup! NIDA, whose leader Prof Dr Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, was directly involved in the PDRC coup, dares to make up lies to tell us we’re happy to have our freedom taken away! We are not happy! We are in a giant open prison!

    So we’d appreciate a little help here!

    Thailand doesn’t make products to export to China except rice, so any relationship between Thailand and China results in Thailand losing. Perhaps the Generals don’t care as long as the Ammart get to keep their slaves, but I think they do care, and they need their European and US export markets for Thailand to succeed. They also need their inward investment.

    US relationship is with the people of Thailand, not General Prayuth. His backer General Prem is 94 and will soon be dead with any luck, so if they try to cosy up to these ancient retired and retiring Generals, then they have no long term relationship there. These Generals will have gone soon.

    But helping free the ordinary Thai people will create a lasting relationship that outlives Prem.

    Do you think Thai people want to live like China, under the heel of the whim of arbitrary dictators? No rule of law, no freedom to speak? Are you so easily fooled by PDRC PR?

    Help us!

  2. Kanchit
    June 15, 2014 at 21:47

    Do not want any intervention from outside Thailand.

    If there was no military intervention on May 22, many more protesters against Thaksin regime would be killed and injured. We are certain that the US and its allies know very well regarding what is happening in Thailand regarding the popular policy and the consequent corruption. Over the past decade, the Thais have been lured to the dark side by Thaksin regime. The rice scheme followed by huge amount of deficit and heavy corruption is one example. Thaksin and his people do not care what will happen to Thailand financial status as long as they can get support from the grass root citizen. All they want is absolute power and corruption for their own team. Thanks to the Thai army for this intervention. We expect to see a better world rank in terms of corruption.

  3. Andrew Spooner
    June 16, 2014 at 01:26

    Too little, too late from the USA.

    And no, the US policy on Thailand hasn’t always been “aimless” – in fact it’s been pretty clear. Support the Thai military come what may in order to sustain the USA’s important strategic relationship with Thailand. Thai Democracy? That’s not been a priority in the thinking of US policy on Thailand for many decades.

    As for the wooly, weak term “shared values” implied in this piece most people committed to democracy in Thailand would ask why the USA has stood full-square behind the Thai military during coup after coup, decade after decade and massacre after massacre.

    Look at the USA’s limp response in 2006 and most notably in 2010 – the latter being an event that seems to have slipped the consciousness of many in recent weeks.

    In 2010 the Thai Army massacred dozens of unarmed civilian pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Bangkok to keep an anti-democratic political party in power and the US pretty much did and said nothing. 100 people dead and silence from almost the entire international community.

    And international commentators now stand there scratching their heads and wonder why Thais are, at present, reluctant to rise up and are curious why the USA’s present insipid response is not taken seriously by the Thai junta.

    The USA “policy” to protect Thai democracy and human rights will fail for one simple reason – there’s no real commitment to it and the junta know this better than any other actors in this terrible farce-tinged tragedy.

  4. darunwat
    June 16, 2014 at 08:32

    In Thailand, Happiness is all around

  5. PaiMei
    June 17, 2014 at 15:41

    Really Andrew? In 72/73 the US position was support the military come what may? And your assertion that the US supported the military (Thai) in 2010 is laughable. What do you want to prove otherwise… airstrikes?

    Criticism of the US by the Junta supporters is being used to deflect the very real problems on the ground in Thailand, lets save your anti-US invective till some later date shall we, the Junta doesn’t need any more credence given them indirectly by sophmoric US haters chomping at the bit to get their slag on.

  6. chai
    June 19, 2014 at 11:45

    I’m sure the guy who wrote this article know Thailand very little in his narrow perspective. In fact, he should know, like many people in Thailand know, who is the tyranny of Thailand like Thaksin family. Who invented populist policy and used rice buying scheme to distort the rice market in Thailand by using Thai people tax more than 50 billion USD damage. Why Thai educated people hate Thaksin and his family who want to tear down the Monarchy and want to establish himself as the first President of the Republic of Thailand. Thaksin was known for so long as crook businessman, the great tyranny of Thailand whose behavior and dirty trick worst than President Marcos of the Phillippines and President Suharto of Indonesia who people around the world knew that they are all US alliances. Thaksin and his family’s greed was know for so long, they cheated the land from Thai temple more than 200 acres to build his goft field. They were behind the black shirts who killed many opponents/ anti Thaksin movement for so long. Please study Thailand carefully, otherwise you will be alliance of tyranny.

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