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Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Global partners balance interests, values post-coup

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Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks at Government House in Bangkok on April 17.   © Reuters

Few countries pose as daunting an international conundrum as Thailand. After the coup d'etat of May 22, 2014 -- the military's 12th successful putsch in 83 years of constitutional rule -- cracks have emerged in the international response to the junta, particularly among the big democracies.

     Some countries that initially opposed the coup are having second thoughts. Others who went along with it are piling in for strategic and commercial benefits. The military-led government itself has been on the back foot in shoring up its post-coup international position. As Thailand moves into its second year since the coup, the international community needs to both uphold democratic values and allow countries to pursue their national interests with nuance and flexibility, based on the performance and progress of the military regime toward a more democratic system.

     In the early post-coup phase, the international community was divided. Established democracies -- the U.S., the European Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand -- took a hard line in defense of human rights and civil liberties toward the self-proclaimed National Council for Peace and Order. Authoritarian states, led by China, treated the coup as a geopolitical opportunity to demonstrate "all-weather" friendship with the newly ensconced military regime in Bangkok. Other democracies, such as India and South Korea, did not come out overtly against the coup or halt business with military-led Thailand.

Going soft

The most conspicuous about-face has come from Australia. After toeing the pro-democracy line earlier, Canberra's position gradually shifted toward accommodation with the government of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, highlighted by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's visit to Bangkok in early May. The gesture from Canberra was the first major Western recognition of Thailand's coup-installed government. That it was portrayed as a mission to gain firsthand insight into the prospects for a return to democracy was disingenuous, and a marked contrast to the visit just months earlier of the U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, who called for the return of democratic rule in no uncertain terms.

Rock, meet hard place

But even the U.S. foreign and defense policy establishment is eyeing a more flexible approach. After suspending a small U.S. military training program, cabinet-level visits and some military cooperation, Washington does not want to hand Bangkok to Beijing on a platter. Washington's focus on rights and freedoms, and the restoration of popular rule, will be maintained but the U.S. cannot afford to sideline its treaty ally.

     Washington has asked for and received permission to use a Thai military base for refueling and logistics to assist victims of Nepal's devastating earthquake. The U.S. is also looking for ways to tweak its post-coup sanctions, but not so much as to undermine its claims to be upholding democratic principles.

     Japan has played its pro-democracy card and indispensable economic partnership with Thailand astutely. After sustained lobbying from Japanese business, Tokyo hosted Prayuth during an official visit in February, partly to avoid driving Thailand toward China. But while it is taking part in Thai infrastructure projects, the Japanese government persuaded Prayuth to reaffirm that elections will take place in early 2016.

     The dilemmas faced by Thailand's key partners are understandable. Thailand has a pivotal location in mainland Southeast Asia and an instrumental place as a founding member and birthplace of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is poised to launch its economic community this year. Moreover, Thailand was on the "correct" side of the Cold War, and came out of both world wars and colonial expansionism relatively unscathed. It is a country no government wants, or can afford, to isolate.

     For the Prayuth government, the overture to Tokyo after six months of kowtowing to Beijing indicates it knows the coup has led to an imbalance in Thailand's traditional foreign policy posture. This is why it reached out to Japan and embraced Australia's change of tack. It would also like to re-engage with other established democracies at the first opportunity.

     The direction of Thai foreign policy will remain unclear until its domestic political order is settled. The military government may remain in power longer than anticipated, as the transition period back to democratically elected government may be indefinite. The challenge for the international community is to get its mix of values and interests right. Near-term interests must be followed in tandem with democratic values as all major parties concerned are the ultimate beneficiaries of Thailand under popular rule.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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