Thailand & the United States Need Better Communication

By Phuong Nguyen

Storm over Bangkok, Thailand. Source: Captain Kimo's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Storm over Bangkok, Thailand. Source: Captain Kimo’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

As President Barack Obama and his team seek to shore up the rebalance to Asia in the president’s final year in office, it makes sense for them to devote more energy to relations with Thailand. Bilateral ties have been strained since the military takeover in Thailand in May 2014.

The April 13 nomination of Glyn Davies, former U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy, as the next U.S. ambassador to Thailand is extremely encouraging, ending a six-month vacancy at the helm of one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world. A number of Thais who care about relations with the United States have wondered whether the delay in appointing a new ambassador to Bangkok might have been due to political considerations or signaled a declining importance of the alliance to Washington.

The U.S. Congress should arrange a confirmation hearing for Davies as soon as possible and expedite a vote to confirm him. The longer the ambassador’s seat in Bangkok remains vacant, the more harmful it will be for Thai-U.S. relations.

Davies’ nomination came two days before the U.S. Pacific Command decided to indefinitely postpone the first planning meeting for Cobra Gold 2016, a multination military exercise that Thailand and the United States cohost every year in Thailand. The U.S. government said it will make a decision—understood to be on whether the exercise will go ahead in early 2016 and to what extent—over the next few months in consultation with Thailand and other participating countries. Meanwhile, the Thai military reportedly still expects to hold a second planning meeting later this year and hopes that the first meeting will be rescheduled.

Given Thailand’s political impasse, there have been talks over the past year about what the United States should do with the annual Cobra Gold exercise: continue to hold it in Thailand, move it to a different location such as Australia, cancel it altogether, or scale down the scope of the drills so long as Thailand remains under military rule. In February 2015, the exercise went ahead, but the combat training portion was scaled down significantly. That decision was received with mixed feelings across the Thai political spectrum.

Washington can hardly be blamed for seeking to use Cobra Gold as leverage vis-à-vis Thailand’s military. As much as U.S. military leaders point to the importance of preserving strong Thai-U.S. defense ties regardless of circumstances, they are also adamant about the need for clearly defined civil-military relations in Thailand. From the perspective of the Thai defense establishment, however, the United States has benefited from Cobra Gold as much as Thailand has, and ambiguity over the future of the exercise could be read as a sign of contempt from the United States.

Ambiguity will not do for Thai-U.S. relations at this juncture. Washington’s calls for a return to democracy and civilian rule need to be coupled with clear and tangible criteria for the expected referendum on the new constitution and elections. The government of interim prime minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said it planned to hold a referendum on Thailand’s new constitution around September and elections in the first half of 2016, but Thai officials subsequently admitted that elections could be pushed back.

Washington needs to state clearly what it expects to see over the duration of the junta’s stay in power, and the concrete steps that will be taken should the military and its supporters not make way for a democratically elected government in 2016. In the case of Cobra Gold, that means making clear to Thailand that the exercise going forward will not take place without clear signs that elections will proceed in 2016.

Meanwhile, criticism of the junta-led government should go hand in hand with high-level engagement and dialogue. The remarks by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel on Thailand’s political situation and U.S. concern over the impeachment of deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra during Russel’s visit to Thailand in January were received with indignation in some quarters in Bangkok, in part because sustained, high-level contact between the two countries had been virtually frozen for months prior to the visit.

The United States holds high expectations for Thailand’s democratic future and electoral process. But history indicates that rewriting the constitution and holding new elections will not fix the issues at the root of Thailand’s political malaise. Prayuth seems to be following this well-worn path while at the same time squashing any political opposition to the traditional elite’s hold on power. Therefore, even as the United States leverages its position to pursue conditional engagement with the current government, it needs to prepare to work with a Thailand that will remain unstable for some time to come.

For instance, it would be useful for Thai and U.S. officials to coordinate closely ahead of the upcoming release of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which will likely see Thailand remain at the lowest ranking, Tier 3, and risk facing sanctions. The two sides may want to establish regular mechanisms to discuss and collaborate on Thailand’s labor and human trafficking issues going forward.

Interactions such as high-level visits, exchanges of nonmilitary delegations, and town hall events between visiting U.S. officials and Thai civil society should not be held captive to U.S. displeasure with the conduct of the Thai military and its supporters. The recent visit of U.S. science envoy Geraldine Richmond is a good example of the type of interaction to be replicated. When senior U.S. officials travel to the region to visit many of Thailand’s neighbors while more often than not bypassing Thailand, the message perceived by Bangkok is not one that reaffirms that the United States will stand by Thailand as it goes through a difficult stage in its history.

When President Obama launched his Asia rebalance policy, U.S. diplomats envisioned a renewed U.S.-Thai alliance for the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, Thailand’s domestic politics have prevented it from taking on an effective partnership with the United States. But neither side can afford to let the goodwill of more than 180 years of friendship be squandered.


Phuong Nguyen

Phuong Nguyen

Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.


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