Elections won’t solve Thailand’s problems with the US alliance

Author: Phuong Nguyen, CSIS, Washington

Thailand’s General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced in February that Thailand will hold elections to restore democracy in early 2016. Despite their many efforts to make the case for the military takeover, Prayuth has realised that the military and its supporters will not get off easy with long-time ally the US.

 Thai students display placards as they demonstrate in front of the military court in Bangkok on 16 March 2015. (Photo: AAP)

There was speculation earlier that the military was prepared, or at least would have preferred, to stay in power when Thailand’s revered and ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej passes away. But the junta is now working to prepare for the next election with caveats. The junta is putting in place safeguards that will give it an unprecedented commanding power over an incoming government and brakes on the functions of political parties, democratic institutions and the press.

Military officers seemingly want to be invited to sit in key positions in the next government. The junta has tasked a commission with rewriting the constitution. The latest version suggests the prime minister may be appointed rather than elected in the event of a political crisis and all members of the upper house of parliament may also be unelected.

There is also a real concern about the checks and balances in the next government that comes into power. Authorities continue to suppress the Red Shirts, who have been loyal supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, two former prime ministers who were deposed in 2006 and early 2014, respectively. Political activities are currently banned, programming of political content is tightly controlled and the press was warned not to criticise the government. And the junta has not shown any intent to lift martial law even during elections.

The military coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006 threw Washington off balance. Many in the US had been optimistic about democratic advances in Thailand since 1997 and the outlook of the US–Thai alliance. Washington called the coup unjustified and suspended military aid.

But in a diplomatic cable then US envoy to Thailand expressed his support for the coup makers. The US reinstated military aid two months after the December 2007 elections, judging that Thailand had restored a democratically elected government. Yet before long the traditional power brokers found a way to sack the then prime minister as well as his successor and dissolve their party for electoral fraud.

The instability in the years that followed did not do any good for the US–Thai relationship. When Yingluck swept to power in the July 2011 elections, officials in Washington and Bangkok thought they at last had a chance to think about ways to reinvigorate the longstanding alliance in the context of the US rebalance to Asia. But that was short-lived. Yingluck’s government headed down the road of its predecessors in the second half of 2013 and early 2014.

Washington will calibrate its response to the next planned election very carefully. The last decade shows that as long as Thais do not have faith in their country’s leaders and institutions, Thailand will remain in crisis mode. As much as Washington recognises that its alliance with Thailand has been adrift, it has become more clear-eyed about the depth of Thailand’s internal issues. Regardless of whether Prayuth will allow elections to go ahead or what the initial outcomes might be, the US is unlikely to risk its reputation by jumping back in prematurely.

US officials have said time and again their country is on the side of the rule of law and democracy in Thailand. The US is relatively confident that the kingdom will ultimately be headed in that direction. But the next election, if it does happen, is likely to take Thailand in the opposite direction. With the looming royal succession, the royalists in business, the military and the traditional Thai elite will jockey for power and position.

Until Thailand comes out of this chaos, Bangkok can expect Washington to pay lip service to the importance of the US–Thai alliance while simultaneously scaling back on key pillars of cooperation between the two countries.

The Thai military considers Thailand’s security alliance with the US one of its most valuable — if not irreplaceable — assets. The junta is fully aware of the further damages it could cause to the alliance. But Prayuth and those close to him perceive now as a critical time in Thailand’s history in which order should be maintained. And this has come to trump everything else. The stakes are extremely high this time. Even Thaksin has kept silent since the 2014 coup.

It could be years into a post-Bhumibol era until Thailand regains equilibrium, if at all. In the meantime the US–Thai alliance will continue to deteriorate further. Washington has made the conscious decision to sit on the margins and affirm its desire to be on the right side of Thai history. But the next election will not decide that history and won’t fix the ills in US–Thai relations.

Phuong Nguyen is a Research Associate at the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

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