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Sounds of Silence in Bangkok

Last time in this space, I wrote about the student-led pro-democracy protests, a piece that originally appeared in The Washington Post's Outlook section.  But writing that piece made me think about the relative lack of any kind of public protest here in Thailand, against last May's military coup.  I decided to tackle that theme in the most recent edition of The Edge Review, the digital magazine I write for.  Here's my take;

©The Edge Review

The sound of silence

Until Thais cry out against military rule, the US will pragmatically keep its criticism of the anti-democratic junta muzzled

By Keith B. Richburg

Watching the noisy scenes from Hong Kong last week – students in the streets demanding democratic voting rights from China, one of the world’s most authoritarian countries – one diplomat contrasted the bravery on display there to the relative passivity in Thailand in the months following May’s military coup. “Open the windows – you hear nothing!” he said, almost in exasperation. “You hear crickets.”

In Thailand, elected politicians, opposition leaders and activists were arrested, some taken away in handcuffs. Freedom of speech has been muzzled, political activity banned, even academic seminars have been cancelled. Yet the predominant reaction from the Thai public to these draconian measures has been ... silence. That is, when there hasn’t been quiet applause from people thankful that the roads and shopping malls are open and unobstructed again.

The lack of public outcry to the Thai generals’ power grab goes a long way to explaining what some consider the rather muted response of the United States. Within days of the coup, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed Washington’s displeasure, and later the State Department announced a suspension in $3.7 million in military assistance and cancellation of some planned training exercises. So far, that’s pretty much it.

The Thai generals have publicly lambasted the US for endangering longstanding ties and, grabbing their tried and tested playbook, have threatened to upgrade relations with China if, as they say, America cannot be counted on as a true friend. But in reality, they know the American sanctions have not been all that severe.

And in the US, there have been criticisms of the Obama administration for not going far enough in punishing the generals. How can the US press for more democratic reforms in places like Myanmar and Vietnam, according to this argument, when Washington refuses to take a tougher line when democracy is so seriously curtailed in a modern, developed country like Thailand?

One voice arguing for a firmer US response is Joshua Kurlantzick, the Southeast Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Kurlantzick called this a “hard coup,” compared to the 2006 “soft coup,” which saw the generals quickly turn over power to an interim civilian government, then a new constitution and fresh elections. This time around the coup leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, named himself prime minister, established a legislature dominated by military men, and doesn’t seem inclined move to elections any time soon.

“Instead of simply preparing to return to normal, the United States should be making plans to move operations in Thailand to other partners in the region and, overall, to become less dependent on the kingdom,” Kurlantzick wrote on the council web site. As examples, he suggested shifting next year’s annual Cobra Gold military exercises to Singapore or the Philippines, and have the US Embassy in Bangkok move some regional operations, like the FBI office and anti-narcotics operations, to Singapore.

I asked several Southeast Asia experts about this – current and former diplomats, US-based Thai analysts, and journalists, all with long experience in Thailand – and found considerable debate, and some degree of agonizing, about the best approach for the US. And the uncertainty was sometimes in one conversation with the same analyst.

One former diplomat was dismissive of Kurlantzick’s position as being “in the school of cutting off your nose to spite your face.” But he conceded that Thailand’s current military rulers “are not very pro-democratic and they’re not very inclusive.”

Gregory B. Poling, a research Fellow at the Council of Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called the US response so far “fairly well calibrated.”

“They sent the message that the United States will not lightly abandon a long-standing alliance relationship with Thailand, but neither will it turn a blind eye to a 20th century military coup in the 21st century,” he told me in an email. “US interests lie in supporting democracy, especially in an Asia-Pacific that is moving increasingly – albeit in fits and starts – toward more liberalized, open political orders.”

Reluctantly, I have to agree. Thailand presents one of those cases of a tough call. Democracy must be supported, and the coup, which toppled an elected government, must be condemned. At the same time, Thailand remains a vitally important partner, particularly given its longstanding position as the regional hub of Southeast Asia.

The sprawling American Embassy compound in Bangkok houses some 60 US departments and agencies, mostly dealing with regional issues such as refugees and displaced persons, human trafficking, international narcotics trafficking and anti-poaching and wildlife protection. There’s a border malaria program, and the US Secret Service is there working with their Thai police counterparts to track down counterfeit US dollars. And the US and Thai intelligence services continue to cooperate on monitoring the movements of suspected terrorists who may want to use Bangkok as a way-station. Cut off ties entirely, and those regional programs are set back.

Further, Cobra Gold is a multinational exercise involving 28 countries – seven participating and the rest as observers – and the bilateral portion with Thailand is relatively small. Tiny Singapore simply doesn’t have the facilities to host such a huge gathering, diplomats told me; Indonesia and the Philippines don’t have the capability. At the very most, the US may look to cancel the bilateral component, more as a token of displeasure with Thailand, but the decision needs to be made soon.

Beyond that, there will be more symbolic gestures. Relations will be downgraded, but not frozen. For example, US officials visiting the area will pointedly bypass Thailand – and that includes President Obama, when he travels in November to the East Asia summit in Myanmar, with stops in Beijing and Brisbane. Obama may rather visit an Ebola outpatient clinic in Liberia than be photographed with Prayuth, but he is still likely to shake the general’s hand when they cross paths at the Myanmar summit – after all, he shook hands with Raul Castro at the funeral for Nelson Mandela.

Does it amount to a double standard, punishing Thailand for its coup while improving relations with authoritarian Myanmar and Vietnam? Perhaps. But I call it holding Thailand to a higher standard. Myanmar and Vietnam may have fewer civil liberties, but their trend lines are in the right direction.

Diplomatic snubs and tepid handshakes may not seem like the stern warning that some – including me – would like to see. But this is one case where America might be better off leading from behind. To go any further, the US would need to first see some signs that Thais themselves are sick of military rule, and that people are taking to the streets, defying warnings, risking arrest and loudly demanding democratic elections and freedoms.

I’m seeing that happening now with those brave students protesting in Hong Kong against all odds. But here in Bangkok, when I open my sliding doors and walk outside onto the balcony, I’m just hearing those same crickets.

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