Monday, May 23, 2016

Saving Thai-US relationship from abyss

Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation

image from

Once again, the Thai-US relations have been played out on the media over the lese majeste law. Both sides have gone overboard with their different perceptions and approaches much to the detrimental of the time-tested 183-year-old relations. Since this symptom has been persistent for quite a long time, it would not be easy to repair one of the most important bilateral relations in Asean.

Admittedly, they are no longer as pivotal as they were during the Cold War. Thailand, as one of the five Asian-Pacific allies, is currently outside the radar in Washington due to its polarized politic and unpredictable social development—something which the US government detests. Like rubbing salts into the wounds, Bangkok's close relations with Beijing, especially in security area, has further infuriated Washington's policy makers as they are trying to rejuvenate the American role and power in this part of the world. At present, the American rebalancing policy in Asia still has a missing cog—Thailand.

Doubtless, opinions coming out from the US State Department these days are full of angsts and frustrations. They usually lacked the sensitivity usually found in those happy days or among their top military leaders. The current top Thai echelon believed that the current Washington's views are controlled by one or two individuals who are biased against Thailand.

US Ambassador Glyn Davies, with his long-standing diplomatic career, chose to repeat the US State Department's comment even though he could have said something different and fresher, reflecting his personal views on the ground. Of course, nobody expected him to divert from the State Department's standing views. Indeed, his eight-month stint should have provided the ample opportunity for him to form his opinion responding to Thailand's concern and practice of lese majeste law. But he picked the safest route, not to upset his boss in Washington.

For now on, the Thai-US relations would continue to be hijacked by the lese majeste cases, which will definitely increase in the near future. The pattern of Thai and US ping-pong reaction would obviously encourage anti-government campaigners to speak out, knowing full well that Washington would come to their defense for the sack of freedom of expression. As long as this vicious circle continues, it is a high way to hell for Thai-US relations.

Last October, Thailand and US properly established a diplomatic channel with their ambassadors in place. Thai ambassador Pisan Manavapat, who has stationed in Washington early last year, will soon become the longest serving ambassador in nearly seven years, which witnessed six different ambassadors. It took nearly a year after his appointment before Davies could perform his diplomatic function in Thailand.

This ambassadorial channel is the most important to communicate with each other on sensitive issues. It is necessary to keep it open for both sides to discuss their difficulties. Otherwise, other unqualified players would dominate the discourse of Thai-US relations—as the case in the past several years--and generate the public opinions that can severely undermine their relations.

If the history of Thai-US friendship is any judge, it cannot be left to the day-to-day mood of activists and policy makers on both sides. At this juncture, they have to take the long views and overcome their personal preferences by zeroing on their common core interests.

Truth be told, Thailand frequently made the headlined news on issue related to human rights and freedom of expression more than other countries in the world because there are high expectation. In the 1990's, Thailand was in the top rank of countries with freedom of expression and respect for human rights. During the Chuan government after the Asian economic crisis, promotion human rights and democracy is one of Thai diplomatic pillars.

Therefore, from the Thai perspective, it is as if Washington has deliberately pin picked on the country. That is not the case. In Washington these days, it is an open secret that the Obama administration is too occupied with the ongoing wars in the Middle East and West Asia. Look around today, Obama still has to fight wars with the American troops on the grounds or engaging drones in at least seven countries including Syria, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

There is no time to think of Thailand. Whenever Washington turns its attention to Asia, it is often focused on China and North Korea. Only Vietnam and Myanmar made news in Washington in recent weeks. It has been about Vietnam's ending arms sanctions and Obama's visit there. Future of Myanmar's trade ties with the US is another hot issue.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the Thai side to handle its domestic issues to mitigate negative perceptions. Indeed, there are better ways to handle the lese majeste cases and opponents to the government. At it stands now, every perceived risk has been reduced in knee-jerked ways and immediately it also increases another and unforeseen consequences.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha should be more open mind and be less dogmatic. He must be bold--as he has displayed on several important issues related to political reform, anti-corruption, human trafficking--to engage more civilian experts to share his burdens, especially in public diplomacy, which is sorely needed. In the past two years, the so-called "group thinking" among Prayut's close aides have done horrible damages to his records and the country's image.

Whatever he tries and will do in the future before the scheduled election in the last half of next year would have irreparable impacts on Thai-US relations and his own legacies.

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