No time to waste in rebuilding Thai-US ties

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation
Washington October 5, 2015 1:00 am

THE Thai ambassador to Washington, Pisan Manawapat, said he will not waste a minute rebuilding Thailand’s badly bruised relationship with the United States, especially since his counterpart, Glyn Davies, is on the ground back home. On Friday, ten days after his arrival in Bangkok, Davies’ credentials were quickly accepted so he could start performing his diplomatic duties right away. The Thai envoy was accorded the same privilege in the exact same timeframe last April. It was a perfect start.

From now on, it is extremely important for common sense to prevail when Thai and American diplomats reengage; unfortunately, common sense has been a rare commodity in the recent annals of Thai-US friendship. Since 2006, especially during the period between 2011 and 2014, the 183-year-old relationship was heavily poisoned by personal bias and misperceptions from diplomats on both sides.

Obviously, the divisive nature of Thai politics did not help. Without the kind of mutual sensitivity that has made Thai-US ties so intimate and unique for nearly two centuries, the two countries have already suffered together and missed an opportunity to push their friendship to a new level.

To improve the current impasse, they need to communicate with each other through formal and informal personal and institutional contacts more frequently and frankly – not via social media as the American diplomats prefer – in order to understand the unique situation both countries are currently encountering.

American diplomats in Bangkok have often lamented the fact that despite open communication with their Thai hosts, they still had no idea what was going on. It was obvious that the American embassy simply did not have the right people in place to assess the Thai situation. No wonder Thailand’s oldest ally is still groping in the dark as the only country out of 193 UN members that does not have “normal” or “near normal” relations with Thailand.

In the coming days, the new American ambassador must tackle two critical issues related to Thailand’s domestic and foreign relations. First is the much-needed political reform to ensure that a truly democratic and responsive government emerges from the next election, scheduled for July 2017. This is something that the US has been encouraging.

Secondly, given this transitional period and the myriad of uncertainty on the Thai side together with the legal restrictions on the US side, how can the two countries work together in ways that would no longer mummify their ties and restore the strategic balance that has eroded rapidly over the past 16 months?

Davies must be given the opportunity to scrutinise what has transpired in Thailand since bilateral ties soured and form his own opinion of the country where he will serve for the next three years. As a career diplomat with wide-ranging experience, he will be able to access independently the current situation and decide for himself whether or not Thailand is moving on the right track. He should not shy away from calling a spade a spade – but he must do it with respect and diplomatic finesse.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha knows full well if he fails in his promises and the road map is cast aside, he will be condemned and purged by the Thais by all possible means. He is a popular figure, but that will not be enough to save his skin if the political reforms fail and the drafting of a new charter as well as political reconciliation efforts fall short of public expectation.

He can’t backtrack from the democratisation path. Most Thais have experienced intense constitutional debate throughout their adult lives, especially those born after the 1990s.They are now the most democratically alert people in the region, if not the world.

Beyond the domestic domain, Davies also needs to quickly assess the new strategic environment that has emerged during the strained Thai-US relations. The conventional wisdom that the two countries could always resume their friendship instantly is no longer true thanks to the regional dynamics brought about by China’s increased economic and political clout. The two countries must rebuild new relations that are more realistic and forward looking than before.

Gone are the days when the US government had the most hands-on experience in dealing with numerous coups and their aftermath over half a century ago. But this time around, Washington has completely missed all the cues and consistently failed to repair the relationship. Indeed, as a result, the whole Thai-US political dynamics have gone into reverse.

In comparison, the Obama administration has done well with former enemies in the region – such as Vietnam and Myanmar – through the dual-track approach, which offered expeditious treatment to advance bilateral relations. It must be noted here that both Asean members meticulously crafted their national priorities befitting the US core regional interests.

Vietnam’s decision to join the Trans Pacific Partnership has been cited as a good case study that Washington is willing to work with a country that responds to its agenda. Myanmar’s rapid normalised ties with the US came about due to the former’s compliance to the US’ long-standing demand to sever missile-technology cooperation with North Korea – Washington’s biggest concern. Other political concessions and reforms came later. For Thailand, it has only itself to blame for the lack of strategic thinking.

Despite Thailand’s dysfunctional democracy and nincompoop lawmakers, the country’s regional environment has never been better. Thailand’s ties with neighbouring countries, particularly Cambodia and Myanmar, have improved greatly.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is scheduled to visit Bangkok in mid-December to take part in a joint Cabinet meeting. Thailand and Myanmar can now resume normal and trusting relations for the first time since 1962, when relations went sour after General Ne Win took power. The ongoing peace process and the expected signing of a nationwide ceasefire in coming in weeks. Thailand has also played an active role behind the scenes, effectively boosting Thai-Myanmar ties to a new level. In addition, better labour standards and proper treatment of migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar under Prayut’s tutelage won him much kudos from their leaders.

In the early days of the 1990s, Thailand’s neighbours feared the Domino-effect emanating that a blooming Thai-style democracy would have on their political systems. Now, they are all feeling at ease with the pace and development inside Thailand. They are pledging to work together more closely as the deadline for an Asean Community is only 86-days away. Now, with Indonesia under President Widodo Joko looking more inward, Thailand’s leadership role is being sought again.

Indeed, it is in this context that the Thai-US relations must rebuild anew.