News / Asia

Column: Thai Ambassador to US Defends Coup

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks at the start of his first press conference since the coup, May 26 , 2014, in Bangkok.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks at the start of his first press conference since the coup, May 26 , 2014, in Bangkok.
The Thai military’s takeover demonstrates how a Washington ambassador’s role can dramatically change, literally overnight.

Thai Ambassador Vijavat Isarabhakdi was traveling through Texas to promote his country when a coup occurred in his homeland almost two weeks ago.

Since the coup, Vijavat has remained in contact with U.S. officials, including discussions briefly last week with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel at a diplomatic function and more formally, with Russel’s principal deputy Scot Marciel at the State Department.
 
The U.S. State Department did not give Thailand a specific deadline for a return to democracy following the military coup, the Thai ambassador told VOA.
 
“There was no deadline,” Isarabhakdi said in an interview.  “It was just mentioned as soon as possible” for a democratic return.
 
Vijavat described his conversations with senior State Department officials that he has held from the start of the coup until last week.
 
“At no time in any of my discussions with the U.S. side was I ever given a deadline as to when the U.S. wishes to see a restoration to democracy in Thailand,” he added in a follow up e-mail, “although the U.S. desire in this regard is clear.”
 
The State Department issued a statement soon after the coup urging “the immediate restoration of civilian rule and release of detained political leaders, a return to democracy through early elections, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
 
In the lengthy phone interview for this column, career diplomat Vijavat defended the military coup as necessary to halt increasing political violence, despite the Obama Administration’s denunciation of the government takeover.
 
He also said that he had received no direct instructions from the coup leaders, instead communicating through career officials in Thailand’s foreign ministry.
 
Starting on his trip to Texas, Bangkok’s top representative to the U.S. faced tough questions in public appearances about the military takeover of Thailand’s civilian government “rather than just about investment opportunities and tourism and things like that.”
 
Vijavat’s response to VOA questions, although cautious, provides insight into the role of a Washington ambassador whose position has just been shaken by dramatic political events.
 
Defining ‘indefinitely’
 
Vijavat tried to soften the use of the word “indefinitely” by coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha when he first spoke about the duration of the military takeover, indicating the English translation may not have conveyed the correct message.
 
“Once you have a translation of what is said, in Thai, many different words can be used,” he said “ So, I don’t think indefinitely means without any limit.”
 
Vijavat said in reference to Prayuth’s initial comments in a press conference: “I think what he was saying is that  he is unable to set a clear deadline right now when elections would be held, because it depends on the situation.”
 
“That does not mean that…things will be unclear forever,” Vijavat noted.
 
Indeed last week , Prayuth somewhat clarified his comments by saying it could take up to more than a year to write a new constitution and hold elections.
 
Soft-pedaling censorship
 
Coup leaders immediately took steps repressive to democracy, including dissolving the Thai legislature, detaining some political opposition figures, summoning newspaper journalists, shutting down broadcast outlets and instituting a nighttime curfew.
 
But Vijavat said that some of the steps had been eased.
 
“The television stations had been taken over the first day. Now, they resumed broadcasting,” he said.
 
However, Vivajat acknowledged the continuing “censorship of the talk shows that would favor one side or another or might incite more feelings of hatred.”
 
Soldiers were reported to be posted in some television stations last week.
 
The Thai ambassador also said that the curfew has been shortened by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order and doesn’t apply to tourists traveling into Bangkok late at night.
 
A brief shutdown of the social networking site Facebook he attributed to technical issues and “not censorship by the National Council.”
 
But Thai officials have already moved to block some web sites and censor Internet content, including Facebook and YouTube, in line with the country’s martial law restrictions.

Insisting the US and Thailand are still friends
 
Not a large amount of U.S. aid was immediately affected, according to the Thai ambassador.
 
“At this point it’s something like $3.5 million that’s affected,” Vijavat said, adding that it is a small amount in the foreign aid arena. “We’re an upper middle income country so we’ve graduated from a lot of the aid that the U.S. used to give us.”
 
He also pointed out that Thailand is America’s oldest formal ally in Asia, dating from the 1833 Treaty of Amity and Commerce.
 
“We are friends and we have been treaty allies,” he said.
 
But when asked, he also acknowledged “we also have good relations with China,” which competes for influence with the United States in Asia and around the world.
 
This coup is different
 
The ambassador cited military claims that the coup is only temporary, seeking to distinguish it in Thailand’s modern political history of coups.
 
“If there’s a difference in this coup than from past coups,” he said, “it is the situation in Thailand over the past six, seven months, there’s been a lot of political turmoil. There have been very entrenched opposing views and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.”
 
“There was almost 30 people who lost their lives and hundreds injured” before the coup, Vijavat said.
 
“The military saw if things continue like this, there might be greater violence,” he said. “The economy was starting to go into negative figures, so this was thought to be some sort of cooling-off period so the parties could come to greater agreement--so the country could move forward.”
 
Vijavat first got the dramatic news in a very modern way.
 
He learned of the coup while in Texas when his phone started filling up with text messages, especially from friends in Bangkok.
 
“So I turned on the television,” he said.
 
Now he is doing his diplomatic best to defend the coup.
 
“That’s the duty of the diplomat,” Vijavat said. “You represent your country and try to explain what the situation is. That’s part and parcel of the job.
 
“My personal feeling,” he said, “is that I want to see the country stable and safe. And along the lines of what the National Council has said, that we will move back toward democratic rule in the future.”

Lee Michael Katz

Lee Michael Katz is an award-winning journalist, analyst and author.

Currently a prominent freelance writer, Katz is the former Senior Diplomatic Correspondent of USA Today and International Editor of UPI News Service.He has reported from more than 60 countries.  Katz’s expertise includes foreign policy and diplomacy, peace talks, national security, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction policy, foundation grants, business and financial topics.

You May Like

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More