After the US sold weapons to Thailand worth US$1 billion during the past decade, this year’s US$261 million in bilateral arms will arguably strengthen Bangkok’s coup-installed military government amid growing concerns about its human rights record.
Some analysts and dissidents see this year’s sales as a shift in US policy towards more engagement with the military regime under Donald Trump, marking a reversal of the previous Barack Obama administration’s emphasis on rights and democracy in relations.
After a period of estrangement, the junta seems keen to reengage its American ally. “Please understand, the government does not throw state money into just buying military hardware and weapons as some people claim,” coup-maker Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Tuesday in defending the armed forces’ expansion and increased spending.
Buddhist-majority Thailand purchased weapons from the US, China, South Korea, Russia Ukraine, Israel, Sweden, Italy and elsewhere during the past 10 years under both military and civilian governments. Purchases have included tanks, helicopters, armored vehicles, patrol vessels, submarines, combat aircraft and other armaments.
Thailand is a major non-NATO US treaty ally and has actively supported America’s counterterrorism policies, including as a Central Intelligence Agency rendition site for terrorist suspects. (Thailand has never officially acknowledged its role in the controversial program.)
“Thailand has no real national security enemies. Internal security is important to Thailand in terms of an [Islamist] insurgency in the country’s Deep South,” said Paul Chambers, an American lecturer and advisor for international affairs at Thailand’s Naresuan University.
Since 2004, nearly 5,000 people on all sides have died in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, where ethnic Malay-Thai Muslim militants are fighting for autonomy or independence.
“Also, the junta would like to obtain weapons which might be used against potential opponents of its continued authoritarian rule,” Chambers, 50, said in an interview.
“The problem is that Washington’s defense sales to the Thai junta can actually work to prop up military tyranny and prevent the return to democracy,” said Chambers. “With more weapons, it will become ever more difficult for any pro-democracy group to dislodge the military from power,” Chambers said.
Anti-junta activists take a similar view. “In the military sense, the biggest threat for [the] junta is the people…that there will always be someone who wants to overthrow them,” said Than Rittiphan, 25, a student member of the dissident New Democracy Movement.
“The US also needs to contain China’s influence over the region. That means the US has no choice but to try to improve its relationship with Thailand as a geopolitically important strategic ally,” Than said in an interview. The latest deals “will make the junta appear to have US recognition” and be “legitimate to stay in power,” Than said.
International human rights organizations have consistently criticized his junta’s military trials and “attitude adjustment” detention of dissidents, bans on political activity and free speech, immunity from prosecution for regime officials and security forces, and other heavy-handed policies.
Yet Trump recently invited Prayuth to the White House. No date has been confirmed for the meeting, but the prime minister is expected to enjoy a boost by meeting Trump at the Oval Office after being held at arm’s length under the previous Obama administration.
US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies described Washington’s weapons sales as evidence of long-standing support. “We have sold almost US$1 billion worth of arms to Thailand just over the last 10 years,” Davies said in a Bangkok Post interview published on July 1.
“The Thai government bought Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters from the US after the  coup. And the US also sold missile systems and naval equipment to Thailand,” the ambassador said.
He was apparently referring to Raytheon’s Evolved Seasparrow Missiles (ESSM), which the Massachusetts-based company describes on its website as NATO’s “guided missile” that “provides self-defense battle space and firepower against high-speed, highly maneuverable anti-ship missiles in the naval environment.”
In 2017, US$261 million worth of military deals are in the works, Davies said without elaborating on specific items. “People have a bit of a misconception about our relationship. They think the relationship ended after the  coup, that we stopped working together. That’s not true,” Davies said.
Bilateral relations hit a new nadir under Obama, with Davies often personally in the political firing line. “Thai people hate his guts, I have to calm them down,” premier Prayuth said in May 2016 describing Davies after the envoy publicly criticized the junta’s human rights policies.
“We can only clarify our position. If he [Davies] does not get it, that can’t be helped,” Prayuth said at the time according to local reports.
But Prayuth’s regime has clearly sensed an opportunity for a reset with the change in leadership in Washington.
“The US has a trade deficit with Thailand, and selling weapons to a military government is one ‘natural’ way to lessen it,” said Benjamin Zawacki, American author of the forthcoming book, “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China.”
One reason for buying more US weapons now is because “Thailand sees an opportunity…perhaps unlikely to last long, to ingratiate itself to a US administration plainly unconcerned with how an erstwhile ally is governed,” Bangkok-based Zawacki said in an interview.
“In as much as the Thai military can effectively make the claim to [Thailand’s] civilian leadership and the public that these sales mean ‘US support’ — however defined or not defined — their hold on power is strengthened,” Zawacki said.
Prayuth has repeatedly postponed holding new elections but may stage polls in 2018 now that his junta’s new constitution has diminished politicians’ powers and entrenched the military in an appointed Senate in any next elected administration.
“Right now, others around the world may not take an issue with how this administration came to be, because there has been some understanding,” Prayuth said on July 7 in his weekly nationwide televised broadcast.
“What they care more about is peacefulness and orderliness. This is because if there is no stability, then trade, investment and economic activity will halt.”
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist, reporting news from Asia since 1978