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Now is the best time to reassess, reinvent US-Thai relations
Publication Date : 09-06-2014
Unlike our previous infamous coups, the May 22 fait accompli has been a blessing in disguise as it has torn down literally all possible pretences related to Thai-US relations, the region's oldest partnership. It also laid bare the fragility and vulnerability of the friendship. Views that went viral online or in newspaper headlines revealed what the Thais - the elite and common folks - thought about their supposed all-weather friend.
The public outburst - including the National Council for Peace and Order's - over what they perceived as US meddling in Thai internal affairs must be seen and understood in a proper context to avoid the knee-jerk reactions which characterise the current hullabaloo.
When Edmund Robert, the American minister representing US President Andrew Jackson, and Chao Phraya Phrakhang of Siam, signed their first document of friendship and trade in March 1833, the two governments pledged their relations would continue "as long as heaven and earth shall endure." That was the wonderful sentiment of the time. Now just look at today's reality. Heaven and earth is still here but the spirit of 1833 has completely evaporated. No Thai can endure to see a friendship turned upside down.
In the age of social media, the lack of political common sense and sensitivity has further deepened Thai-US mistrust. It has helped spawn all sorts of conspiracy theories which are getting weirder as days pass. Eventually, the discourse over the 182-year old Thai-US friendship has degenerated into four letter words - and the continued vitriol demonstrates the trust deficit on both sides. This is very bad news. For the US's most treasured alliance, public and bipartisan support must be forthcoming. Otherwise, it will be hard to advance any cooperation, especially in political and security areas where the parties do not have common enemies as before.
This helps explain why recent new initiatives between Thailand and the US have flopped. Regarding Thailand, the cancellation of a Nasa project to research the atmosphere and the expanded use of U-Tapao airbase were a good case study. Washington blamed the Thai decision-makers for politicising the issues due to conflict at home. But from Bangkok's vantage point, the Thais did not trust the Americans because of their perceived hidden agendas.
In a similar vein, when Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, passed through the Thai judicial process after his arrest in 2008, the US government did not trust the Thai system one bit. Before the court's decision over Bout's extradition in late 2010, Washington decided to file a second lawsuit against him to delay the case, fearing that he would be sent back to Russia. As it turned out, the Thai court issued a verdict to extradite Bout to the US, much to Washington's embarrassment. The extradition was delayed for weeks due to the US misconception of Thai justice.
This was not the first time the US encountered a coup such as this one. Washington's predictable response was followed by a series of standard procedures - cutting off military assistance, training and joint exercises and exchange visits. Thailand has been through these sanctions before and did not mind them as they would have little impact on their relations. But this time around, US Secretary of State John Kerry's quick and harsh comment of "no justification" for the seizure of power did not bode well over here. For the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), it just showed the level of Kerry's ignorance of the situation on the ground. Worse still, he has not visited this key ally in the region since he took office.
Unfortunately, the Thais still remember vividly the US refusal to help them during the economic crisis of 1997, known as the Tom Yum Kung crisis. Since then, mutual trust has eroded gradually and has not recovered. The saddest thing is the two sides have made little effort to cut down the trust deficit. Instead, they let their friendship slide down the slope.
For Thai-US relations, public perceptions matter a lot. Amazingly, even in an age of instant information, the two countries still use narratives that portray each other with stereotypical thinking. In Washington these days, Thailand is nothing but a country with a widening income gap that is ripe for a new transformation - but with huge uncertainties. Over the top, the ever popular topic of royal succession has become a staple of Thai political discourse on the Beltway. For Thais, the US is nothing but a selfish and arrogant nation adroit in using double standards wherever it sees fit. It also has an insatiable appetite for energy and natural wealth of developing countries.
A better communication strategy is needed for Thai-US decision makers to instil confidence and trust. Better and sincere diplomats would help to improve ties. Until recently, the Thai diplomatic representation in Washington carries no weight with its frequent change of ambassadors.
Apart from the government-to-government channel, the non-military institutional linkages, including civic groups, are still inadequate. Therefore, policy responses during crises were often ambivalent and adversarial. This gap needs to be filled urgently otherwise future bilateral ties will be held hostage again.
With the present day's dramatic geostrategic shifts, it is imperative that Thai-US relations be reviewed including the benefits of the alliance. Ironically, this is the time to do it. The NCPO is illegitimate in the eyes of Washington. But in the next 15 months it can open a window of opportunity to reset relations - as difficult as that might be. Otherwise, it would be an opportunity lost if the US continues to stress its own limitations.