At a time when US relations with most countries in Southeast Asia are warming, the United States’ ties with its oldest partner in the region are a critical outlier. Thailand-US relations have been in a deep freeze for the past 13 months since Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha ousted an elected civilian government following six months of disruptive political protests and installed a military junta.
Thailand is going through a historic political transition that has existential stakes for Thais. Meanwhile, much of the rest of Southeast Asia is seeing a nuanced shift away from centrally controlled political models as its fast-expanding and relatively young middle class, empowered by strong economic growth and technological innovations, has begun to assert itself and press governments for more transparency, access to decision-making, and stronger institutions.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Thailand is a founding member, is central to the US rebalance to Asia. In responding to Thailand’s political crisis, the United States must walk a tightrope, balancing consistency in US foreign-policy tenets supporting democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression with an unwavering focus on a strategic compass that defines US interests as sustaining a strong and unified ASEAN as the core of an emerging regional economic and security architecture.
Southeast Asia’s political landscape is changing and Thailand, which has faced a decades-long cycle of attempts at democracy shattered by coups and military juntas, will eventually rejoin the regional trend of broader participation in political decision-making and strengthening rule of law and institutions.
In the past two decades, US policies toward Thailand have been perceived by Thais as wrong-footed in at least two instances: Washington’s response to the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997 and its reaction to the previous coup in 2006. In both cases, Thais complained that US policy was prescriptive, paternalistic, and did not take into account the real situation on the ground.
Now there is growing concern about the United States in Thailand and creeping anti-US sentiment. Policymaking certainly should not be a popularity contest, but the United States risks losing serious geopolitical ground if it fails to manage this difficult chapter in Thailand’s political evolution.
For now, the Thai military has assumed political control to ensure it manages the royal succession beyond ailing 87-year-old King Bhumipol Adulyadej, whenever that takes place. At least some observers believe it is unlikely that Thailand will have real elections until the succession takes place, which could be several years from now.
The draft constitution currently being circulated falls short of what most observers would consider a minimally credible democracy. Senior leaders in political parties on both sides of the divide have been critical of the draft.