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.
The military keeps pushing back the date for new elections. Last month officials said the elections that had been expected early next year would not take place before August or September 2016. The military has said the elections were pushed back to allow for a referendum, but it has given no indication of what would happen if the draft constitution was rejected.
In this context, what should the US government do?
For starters, the Senate should quickly confirm ambassador-designate Glyn Davies, a talented career diplomat who was nominated in April. The ambassador slot in Bangkok has been open for nearly a year, and Thais can be forgiven for assuming this is a diplomatic signal. The embassy in Bangkok needs its senior-most slot filled to demonstrate that the United States takes Thailand seriously even if it disagrees with its politics.
Separate from the ambassador, the administration should assign to Thailand a high-level special envoy, a leader with long experience in Asia and high-level foreign policy and security standing who can talk credibly to Thailand’s military leaders. The envoy should travel frequently to Thailand to consult with various stakeholders, including the military, to deepen understanding of US concerns and listen to the perspectives of the key players in the political drama that has engulfed the kingdom.
The US government should continue to urge the Thai military to restore democracy quickly and press the junta to rescind the orders restricting freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and other civil and political rights, end the use of military tribunals to try civilians, and amend or revoke penal code article 112 on lèse-majesté and release those convicted under that article.
Thailand’s relations with China have long been strong and it seems that Beijing incrementally steps up its ties with the Thai military every time Washington pulls back. Washington needs to find ways to demonstrate that it remains a friend of Thailand and will not turn its back on the country when politics enter a rough patch. One idea would be to establish a private eminent persons’ group of senior former US foreign-policy officials, experts, and business leaders that could meet influential Thais on a regular basis to discuss the future of Thai-US relations, say, five years down the road.
If the military delays the elections beyond September 2016, Washington should consider other alternatives. The embassy in Bangkok is one of the largest in the region and serves as the base for a raft of US activities in Southeast Asia, including as the regional headquarters for narcotics interdiction, the US Agency for International Development, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Thailand prides itself on serving as this regional hub, but if the return to democracy is delayed indefinitely, Washington could demonstrate its ongoing concern by beginning to move some of these regional services and offices to neighboring countries.
Once Thailand has successfully returned to democracy, Washington should move quickly with Bangkok to get relations, including military and security ties, back on a cooperative track.
Ernest Z. Bower (@BowerCSIS) is a Senior Adviser and Chair, and Murray Hiebert (@MurrayHiebert1), is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS, where this originally appeared