US President Donald Trump’s scheduled October 2 meeting with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at the White House will give Bangkok’s coup-installed military government prestige and legitimacy while the junta’s political opponents are fearful, muzzled and without a strong and present leader.
“Prayuth and the generals crave legitimacy, particularly from the US and EU who have criticized revolving-door coups and governments in Thailand over the past 10 years,” Paul Quaglia, a former US Central Intelligence Agency officer in Bangkok, said in an interview.
“The US press corps, unrestrained by Thai military censorship and hostile to a Trump administration, is likely to raise embarrassing questions about…palling around with coup-sponsoring generals,” said Quaglia, who is now the Bangkok-based director of PQA Associates, a private security concern in Hong Kong.
US-Thai relations hit a low under previous US President Barack Obama, whose envoys gave emphasis to democracy and rights in relations with the junta. The slump in ties was seen in the withdrawal of certain military aid and downgraded US-led annual multilateral military exercises held in Thailand known as Cobra Gold.
Trump, on the other hand, has made clear his administration will deemphasize such concerns in his foreign relations, which so far in Asia have been driven by building a multilateral consensus against North Korea and rebalancing trade relations with countries which the US holds a deficit.
“President Trump looks forward to reaffirming the relationship between the United States and a key partner and longstanding ally in Asia, the Kingdom of Thailand,” the White House said on September 25. “The President and Prime Minister will discuss ways to strengthen and broaden bilateral relations and enhance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region,” the announcement said.
Prayuth will visit the US from October 2-4, including a gala dinner hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and US-Asean Business Council, Thailand’s foreign ministry said. The ministry said the visit “will help re-energize and further strengthen high-level ties” and “reaffirm Thailand as the United States’ oldest ally in Asia.”
Prayuth will be accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, Interior Minister General Anupong Paojinda and other government and private sector officials. The White House visit will be the first by a Thai leader since 2005.
“For the US, this reflects an attempt to tilt Thailand back as a close ally [as it was] prior to the 2014 coup and away from China,” Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University lecturer in Southeast Asian studies, said in an interview. China has made strong strategic and economic inroads in Thailand under military rule.
The two leaders will likely discuss “increased defense ties, such as sales of more US weapons to Thailand, an enhancement of US participation in the Cobra Gold exercises, which were slightly diminished following the 2014 coup, and security collaboration in disaster relief,” said Chambers.
“The US is intent on a reduction in the trade deficit which [it] has with Thailand, intellectual property piracy issues, and increasing more investment and trade,” Chambers added. The US ran a US$18 billion trade deficit with Thailand in 2016, its 11th largest worldwide.
Prayuth, then army commander, led a May 2014 coup which ousted former premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected civilian government.
The White House meeting comes just after Thailand’s Supreme Court sentenced the fugitive Yingluck to five years in prison on September 27, ruling in absentia she was guilty of criminal “negligence” in her government’s multi-billion dollar loss-making rice price support scheme.
Upon missing a highly anticipated court ruling on August 25, she reportedly fled Thailand with the help of police, decoy cars and a black surgical face mask.
“She has not yet applied for political asylum and I don’t know whether she will be able to get it,” Prayuth told reporters on September 26 amid speculation that Yingluck was trying for asylum in the United Kingdom.
Yingluck reportedly joined her wealthy brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who is living out a similar fate after being toppled by the military in a 2006 coup. Thaksin is currently dodging a two-year prison sentence handed down in 2008 for a corrupt real estate deal involving his now-divorced wife.
Thaksin has been allowed to travel to both the US and China, as well as various Asian countries including Singapore, despite being a fugitive from Thai justice.
Prayuth, who retired as army chief in 2014, wields self-declared absolute powers which grant him and his junta legal immunity while banning political activity, free speech, press freedom and other basic liberties.
His military government insists it is not abusive because there is no evidence that any opponents have been killed by the regime, though several have been jailed and restricted in other ways. Prayuth has repeatedly promised and delayed elections, which have now been pushed to 2018 or possibly 2019.
For Prayuth, visiting the White House for the first time will enable him “to showcase to Thai people” that Washington “doesn’t care about how he came into power and [will] hopefully legitimize the coup and his position,” said Tom Kruesopon, a former advisor to Yingluck’s government.
Trump will probably ask “how Thailand can help with [pressuring] North Korea, especially regarding financial transactions,” Kruesopon said in an interview. A handful of Thai businesses privately deal with North Koreans — mostly through China — according to analysts.
Thai businesses officially conducted US$53 million in trade with North Korea in 2016, representing Pyongyang’s fourth biggest trade partner, Bloomberg news reported. US Secretary of State reportedly raised Bangkok’s trade ties to Pyongyong during an August 8 meeting with Prayuth.
During the 1950-53 US-led Korean War, Thai troops fought alongside US forces in the south against the north.
Bangkok also sent troops to fight alongside the US during the 1970s in the Vietnam War and CIA-led “secret war” in Laos, and briefly provided a small number of personnel during the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Thailand is a US major non-NATO treaty ally, a status that allows Bangkok certain financial advantages in procuring American-made military equipment.
“Thailand should try to convince the US not to go to war [against North Korea]…because war is not a solution, and it will be very damaging for the people and the region,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani University’s political science faculty.
“Ideally, I would expect Trump to raise concerns over the Thai democratic time-line [for elections], and the problems of human rights within Thailand,” Titipol said in an interview. “Unfortunately, I do not think Trump would discuss these issues.”