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.
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.
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.”