Three years after a military coup that ousted a democratically elected government, Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has an invitation to the White House.
The invitation from U.S. President Donald Trump, which appears to have been issued in the context of a discussion on North Korea, has dismayed many human rights organizations, which see it as a major shift in U.S. policy, and is the latest step in a gradual unravelling of the Western consensus on how to manage bilateral ties with Thailand. But it also presents an opportunity for like-minded countries that still have limited high-level contact with Thailand to reconsider the effectiveness of their arms-length policy over the last three years.
The U.S. and like-minded Western allies such as Canada, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, reacted strongly to the 2014 coup. They issued statements of concern or condemnation, cut off cabinet-level contacts (except for informal encounters on the margins of broader meetings), and reduced military cooperation. This approach was aimed at conveying displeasure with the coup and its restrictions on civil liberties, and at pressuring Thailand to move swiftly to an elected government.
While their aims may have been laudable, and while absence of high level contact, especially with the U.S., may have been somewhat humiliating to the Thai leadership, these measures did little to budge the military-led government. Although the coup-makers claimed they had taken action to restore order and fight corruption, the main reason for the coup was the impending death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and the perceived need for the military to be in charge during the transition to a new reign. Foreign pressure and opinions were tangential to these interests.
Three years later, Thailand -- still facing instability, bombings, and corruption -- is moving incrementally and uncertainly toward a restoration of democracy, but the date for elections keeps getting kicked down the road. It took two tries to get a new constitution approved -- each drafting process was slow and painful -- and securing the necessary royal approval was hampered not only by the death of King Bhumibol, but by further changes demanded by his successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, before he gave royal endorsement. Thus elections, initially promised by Prayuth for late 2014, are now unlikely to happen before late 2018. They may be delayed further if signals from the ruling junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order, are any indication.
Even when the polls take place, democratic government will be diminished in Thailand. The new constitution preserves a role for the junta in the unelected upper house, investing it with authority to invoke emergency powers, and restricts the power of the elected lower house. The military leaders seem reluctant to move off the political stage, even though the transition to the new reign is complete.
Foreign pressure may have helped to mitigate the treatment of some prominent human rights activists, and a decision to drop about 50,000 defamation charges is a step in the right direction. But restrictions on freedoms of association and expression, which continue to be applied unequally against government opponents, remain in force, along with a crackdown on Facebook postings and an increasingly draconian application of the lese-majeste law that has resulted in harsh sentences for innocuous comments on the monarchy.
Power dynamics are shifting in the region as well, as China's influence grows. Facing diminished and strained ties with the U.S. and the EU, Thailand's ties in the region have strengthened, and there has been, in particular, a deliberate shift to stronger relations with China, already an important partner. The country has made significant military purchases, including submarines, from China, and at the same time has been increasingly receptive to Beijing's demands on such issues as sending Uighur refugees and dissidents back to China. Increased uncertainty and mixed signals from Washington on the U.S. agenda in the Pacific has also led to this drift, and other Southeast Asian leaders such as the Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte have also drawn visibly closer to China.
A number of countries that had imposed restrictions on high-level engagements with Thailand in the wake of the coup have backed away from this position, or sent signals that they are considering doing so. Australia was the first, sending Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for a bilateral visit in November 2015. In mid-2016, New Zealand also dropped its hard-line approach, opting to allow high-level contacts. In addition to Trump's White House invitation, Thai leaders will have picked up another signal from his recent speech in Saudi Arabia, in which he seemed to eliminate human rights from the American lexicon in future dealings with foreign countries.
In this context, and since countries are already moving from their original positions, it may be time for a reassessment and a new consensus about Western relations with Thailand, particularly amongst countries for which human rights and democratic development -- along with advancing their own commercial and strategic interests -- remain important. All these countries want to see Thailand, a long-standing ally, succeed economically and politically. All want to see Thailand return to democratic governance, strengthen the rule of law, and live up to the international human rights obligations it has freely taken on by adhering to various international agreements. All want to see sustainable stability in Thailand, and the increased prosperity that will come from it.
Filling the vacuum
It is increasingly obvious, though, that Western countries will not be in a position to help facilitate this if they continue to avoid substantive, face-to-face engagement with the Thai leadership. Lack of engagement has not advanced human rights or security in Thailand. It has, however, enabled China to fill the vacuum and promote its model of authoritarian state capitalism. Promising full re-engagement once a democratically elected government is in place provides no incentive for the current government to respond to Western advocacy because it promises nothing for the current leadership.
Critics of engagement will argue that it offers legitimacy to a government installed by a coup, and that the Thai government will present it as an endorsement of the putsch. The first argument was valid in the short term, but the Prayuth government has been in power for three years, and has received royal backing. At some point, the legitimacy argument wears thin in the face of practical reality. The Thai government may indeed equate re-engagement with endorsement in its own public messaging, but it has been doing that for three years through misleading statements to the media. Everyone is used to it; governments and embassies have their own media strategies to counteract such messages.
ngaging with the Thai prime minister and his cabinet allows Western countries to advocate more effectively, politician to politician, on issues of concern, and to place these concerns within a substantive discussion on a range of issues of importance. The best approach would be for these countries to develop, between themselves, a coherent set of mutually reinforcing messages so that advocacy on such issues as human rights concerns carries the collective weight of many countries, and is delivered consistently by many leaders. It may be, given signals from Trump, that the U.S. will no longer be interested in leader-level advocacy on human rights and democratic governance. If so, it will be up to other leaders -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, for example -- to exercise leadership on this front.
Early condemnation of the coup and the ban on high-level bilateral engagement sent a strong message to Thailand, and may have made Western politicians feel good. Now it is time to recalibrate, to expand lower-level engagement on human rights and governance, and to match this with talk from leaders, in order to support and encourage Thailand's transition away from military government and back to a more balanced position in Southeast Asia. Thailand continues to face security, economic and governance challenges. It is time for all Western countries to be part of the solution that returns Thailand to its former status as a democratic and prosperous security partner.
Philip Calvert is a senior fellow at the China Institute at the University of Alberta and served as Canada's ambassador to Thailand from 2012 to 2016.