In the six months since Thailand’s military coup, the United States has exported tens of millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to the unelected government there. This finding is based on a new analysis of US Census Bureau export data conducted by Truthout.
The records, which run through September, show that since the May 22, 2014, coup, the United States has delivered $11 million in parts for military aircraft, more than $1 million in parts for guided missiles and three UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters worth more than $40 million.
The Thai military government, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has mandated widespread censorship on television, radio, in print and in social media. It has also outlawed criticism of the military authorities, as well as gatherings of more than five people.
The NCPO has also detained more than 300 politicians, activists, journalists and demonstrators since the coup. Many are being held incommunicado at military black sites, and some are alleging torture.
In August, the leader of the military, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, was appointed the country’s prime minister by a legislative body that he himself handpicked. General Prayuth has suggested that democratic elections may not occur until 2016.
The US arms deliveries have continued despite the Thai military’s history of violent repression. In 2010, the Thai military opened fire during a crackdown on opposition protesters calling for new elections. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the military’s actions, which killed scores and left hundreds injured.
“We don’t want weapons shipped that can be used against protesters,” Brad Adams, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told Truthout.
However, the United States has continued to deliver arms to the Thai government. In the month immediately after the military seized power, the US government exported more than $1 million in parts and accessories for military rifles and has continued to export hundreds of military rifles and shotguns since the May coup.
When Truthout asked about the continued delivery of US arms to Thailand, a government spokesperson replied in an email: “The United States reviews all requests for security assistance on a case-by-case basis, taking into account political, military, economic, arms control, and human rights conditions in making decisions on the provision of military equipment and the licensing of direct commercial sales to any country.”
Despite the State Department’s reassurances, the US weapons deliveries to Thailand may be illegal under US law, according to Brittany Benowitz, an attorney and former congressional staff member with expertise in US security assistance.
“All of these transfers are arguably inconsistent with the new arms trade directive, which discourages transfers that would identify the United States with human rights abuses,” Benowitz told Truthout.
The weapons transfers may also run contrary to provisions of the Foreign Assistance Act, and would be prohibited under federal law if any of the arms sales were financed in part with US funds, Benowitz said.
Regardless of whether the arms deliveries conform to the letter of current US law, observers believe US weapons sales, which are not barred in the Foreign Assistance Act, should end after a military coup.
“The United States should not be arming, training or engaging in military exercises with the Thai armed forces as long as the country is under military rule. This cutoff should include arms sales as well as military aid,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
“To let sales go through while the military regime is still in power represents a tacit endorsement of military rule, and is unacceptable,” Hartung told Truthout.
When the Thai military took control of Thailand, the State Department suspended $4.7 million in foreign assistance as a result. However, the State Department has continued to approve possible arms sales to Thailand. The most recent example was in September, when nine UH-72A Lakota Helicopters and associated parts, service and support worth $89 million were approved. The State Department has also asked Congress for more than $11 million in foreign assistance to Thailand for 2015 – including $900,000 in military aid.
Some have argued that the United States should continue military ties with the Thai government in order to maintain influence. However, Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, told Truthout he was skeptical of the effectiveness of this approach.
“The US should really be embarrassed by this because this is what 50 years of relations with the Thai military has produced,” Adams said. “I think they need to rethink their relationship to the Thai military.”
In October, after much discussion, the United States announced it was going ahead with its massive Cobra Gold military exercises with Thailand. These multilateral exercises are the largest in Asia, with over a dozen countries participating.
“We have told the US we don’t believe it’s appropriate to engage in exercises with the Thai military while it has taken power from a coup,” Adams said.
However, the continued US military support to Thailand is unlikely to be shaken by the political situation there, according to analysts.
“The US has a very longstanding military relationship with Thailand that dates back to the Vietnam War era. That drives a lot of the thinking in the US about how far they [the US government] should go in responding to the coup,” Adams said.
Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with IHS-Janes, believes geostrategic interests in the Pacific are playing a role in the US response to the coup.
“The US military has been looking to sustain and strengthen a decades-old security relationship with Thailand at a time when China is slowly expanding its military footprint in the region,” Davis told Truthout. “For now both sides have far too much to lose in broad geostrategic terms to allow [their partnership] to wither.”