While the world watched Myanmar’s historic vote in mid-November, another military dictatorship in Southeast Asia was busy putting off its own elections with a little help from Washington. For the past 18 months, Thailand has been suffering under the heavy
thumb of junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the ex-general who overthrew democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. Instead of offering
any serious pushback against military rule in Thailand, the Obama administration has instead sacrificed its commitment to democracy at the altar of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – that jumbled mess of corporate interests the president now wants to force
In October, the new US ambassador to Bangkok “welcomed with open arms” the Thai junta’s desire to join the TPP. Not that human rights or elected
government ever had much to do with Obama’s poster-child free trade agreement – the inclusion of Vietnam left no doubt on that front.
In his defense, Ambassador Glyn Davies stressed in that same Bangkok Post interview that US-Thai relations could not return to “normal” until
Thailand had elected civilian leaders. To give an idea of just how important Thailand’s road back to democracy is for the US, here is Davies in his own words: “… we hope you can get back to that soon because I want that relationship to be at 100%.
But it won’t stop me from working on the other 95% of the relationship in the meantime.”
Since the coup, the US military partnership with Thailand has continued and Obama has deigned not to sanction the junta for its failure to combat human trafficking or its human rights abuses. Just how important is it for the
administration, then, that people in Thailand reclaim the right to choose their own leaders? Five percent sounds about right.
In early November, Thailand’s prime minister insisted he would firmly stand by a so-called “6-4-6-4” formula for leading Thailand back to civilian rule
in 2017 at the earliest. Under this 20-month “sunset clause,” Prayuth’s unelected government will remain in power while a military-appointed committee
drafts a new constitution and submits it to a referendum. Of course, whatever draft constitution this group comes up with could be canned (which has already happened once), letting the junta start the whole process over again and extending its mandate indefinitely. At a minimum, Thailand’s military rulers will have exercised unchecked political power for three years
and two months – and all with what practically amounts to the United States’ blessing.
Given the string of broken pledges made by Prayuth and his lieutenants, it would be best to take this one with a truckload of salt. The “6-4-6-4” plan is the latest in a long line of timeframes proposed by the post-coup government. Before this, Thai voters
and international observers had been promised a return to the ballot box in 2015 and then
2016. It is no surprise that the military is prepared to pull out all the stops in pushing a democratic vote back as long as possible. The political family they are trying to destroy, the Shinawatras, has won every Thai election of the past 15 years by championing populist policies and appealing to marginalized rural voters long dismissed by Bangkok’s urban elites.
Ironically, Myanmar’s much-vaunted democratic transition may serve as an appealing model for Prayuth and his fellow generals. For one thing, Obama didn’t bother trying to punish the government there for what he himself described as “backsliding” in its political reforms, taking US leverage off the table because the White House felt it was “better to be engaged.” We shouldn’t forget the administration’s release of military aid to an even more ruthless despot in Egypt, either. With President Obama demonstrating he will pursue his foreign policy goals regardless of concerns over human rights or democracy, the Thai junta is taking Myanmar’s
queue by granting itself the same extra-parliamentary powers enjoyed by their Burmese counterparts. The draft constitution the Thai military’s “National Reform Council” drew up (and then rejected) earlier this year would have created a 23-member ”
politburo” with the power to take executive and legislative authority for itself “in times of crisis,” sanctioning future coups and prompting fierce opposition from every side of the political spectrum in Thailand.
Unfortunately, Thailand’s ruling generals are unlikely to face any serious pressure from the United States over their dawdling in the near future. Unlike Myanmar, where the junta’s decision to begin opening up marked a shift away from China and toward India and the West, Thailand has been a US ally for over 180 years. The US State Department, emulating the tack usually
taken with military strongmen who are on the right side of Washington, will continue to “urge” Prayuth’s government to put the democratic
process back on track, content in the knowledge that no one is listening. As Ambassador Davies put it in another October interview: “We don’t choose sides, we choose principles.”
Considering how little impact the military’s anti-democratic rule has had on US-Thai relations, one has to wonder which principles he has in mind.