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In Thailand, US Threads Between Military Interest and Democratic Ideals

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, center, speaks during a press conference after a Thailand's Constitutional Court ordered his party dissolved, in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 21, 2020.
Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, center, speaks during a press conference after a Thailand's Constitutional Court ordered his party dissolved, in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 21, 2020.

Thanat Apichonpongsakorn, a 34-year-old business owner, had nearly given up on Thai politics. But after he saw young politicians launch a new party, he went to the polls last year with a new attitude, not just to vote “no” as he had the previous two elections since 2011.

Thanat left the voting booth on March 24, 2019, filled with optimism for the Future Forward Party. Within less than a year, the party he supported was gone after a court ruled against its financial practice, a verdict that pries open Thanat’s prior view on politics.

“No matter who the new government will be,” he said, “There will be the same kind of people and bodies. Nothing is going to change.”

The demise of Future Forward, the country’s second-biggest opposition party, removes a challenge in the parliament for the military-backed government and armed forces, and has a knock-on effect to the U.S.-Thai relationship. It tests the ability of the U.S. to thread a delicate line between strengthening military ties with its oldest ally in Asia and advocating for democracy in a region where strongman rulers including Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Thailand’s General Prayut Chan-o-cha emerged triumphant from elections regarded as flawed by international observers.

“I still think that Washington would prefer to have a more democratic government in Thailand than exists today,” said Paul Chambers, a visiting research scholar at Kyoto University in Japan. “A more democratic government would be more popular and the U.S. would rather connect with a popular, democratic government with which it can boost the U.S. interests.”

Elsewhere, the U.S. has chosen strategic interest in security over ideological principle, and vice versa. For Thailand, growing discontent with the government could determine the choices of the Washington’s approach in the future.

Storm of criticism

On February 21, the Thai Constitutional Court ruled that the Future Forward Party violated a law when it took $6-million loans from its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 41-years-old tycoon who had left his family automotive empire to dabble in politics. The ruling touched off a storm of criticism in Thailand and abroad.

“While the United States does not favor or support any particular political party in Thailand, more than six million voters chose the Future Forward Party in the March 24th elections,” the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said in a statement hours after the court’s verdict. “The decision to disband the party risks disenfranchising those voters and raises questions about their representation within Thailand’s electoral system.”

On February 25, one of Future Forward’s fiercest critics, Thai Army Chief Apirat Kongsompong, entered the Hart Building in Washington, DC, free from the legion of Thai news crew who had followed him at home in recent weeks. He was greeted by Senator Tammy Duckworth, the Democrat from Illinois who is a member of Senate Armed Services Committee.

“As a Thai-American, I feel strongly that we must continue building upon the strong relationship between the U.S. and Thailand. … We should be doing more to support and advance our partnerships in Southeast Asia,” Duckworth said in a statement.

Apirat’s trip, by American Army Chief James McConville’s invitation, coincided with the full participation of the U.S. in the Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand, the largest international military drills in the Indo-Pacific region. Military exercise between Thai and U.S. had been scaled down after a coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. During that period, Thailand and China forged deeper ties, leaving the U.S. to play catch up to counterweigh Beijing’s power when Thai democracy was restored.

Balancing act

The U.S. balancing act in Thailand as a shepherd of democratic ideal and a military realist offers a window into how Washington walks a policy tightrope, more deliberately than it did in some parts of the world.

In Egypt, Army Chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. The U.S. government under President Barak Obama didn’t call Morsi’s removal a coup thus circumventing a legally binding requirement to withdraw $1.5 billion aid in U.S. aid for Egypt, long a strategic ally that helped keep peace in the region.

But it’s a different story in the Philippines.

The longstanding U.S.-Philippine military alliance started faltering when Washington criticized President Rodrigo Duterte for his crackdown on drugs after he took office in 2016. In January this year, Washington canceled the visa of Senator Ronald Dela Rosa of the Philippines who served as national police chief when Duterte began his anti-drug campaign in which thousands of people were killed extrajudicially.

On February 10, the Manila government announced that it had sent a "notice of termination" regarding the Visiting Forces Agreement to the U.S. Embassy in Manila. The agreement, signed in 1998, allows for U.S. forces on Philippine soil to conduct military exercises and humanitarian missions in the region.

Thailand’s turning point

When Thailand’s Yingluck was ousted from office six years ago by Prayut who was then army chief, the military was credited for ending political gridlock and taking down the political dynasty of Thaksin Shinawatra. The telecom tycoon-turn-politician rose to power with a landslide victory in the 2001 election, which was later tarnished by cronyism and corruption allegations.

Many supporters of former junta leader Prayut who became prime minister again after the 2019 elections, think the general is overstaying his welcome.

“He could be remembered forever as 'The man who returned the democracy to Thailand' but instead he chose to further dirtying his hands,” said a Thai business owner who identified himself as Derndin Kinkaogang. “Let’s just say I lost faith.”

Prayut fatigue has intensified in recent weeks as his administration has faced the economic repercussion from the global outbreak of COVID-19. Citing analysts, Bloomberg News reported on January 31, that Thailand’s economy may slide into a technical recession in the first quarter this year.

The disbandment of Future Forward is helping to fan the sense of despair.

“The regime just doesn’t care,” said Boonyawee Johnson, a Thai resident in Washington areas. “Why, just why did (the party’s executive members) have to get banned from politics for a decade over this mere loan issue?”

The so-called “flash mobs” against the government by more than 35 universities and high schools could nudge the country into a cycle of swelling demonstration, unstable government, military interference and another general election all over again.

Analysts said, faced with a series of setback from a shortage of surgical masks to recent spikes in the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Thailand, Prayut may try to appease public discontent by removing cabinet members who gained less support than others after the censure debates during February 24-27.

While a cabinet reshuffle may send a message to Thailand’s democratic allies that Prayut takes into account opposition voice, there are detractors who call for a bigger change.
“It has come to a point where the rip tide of public discontent is too strong for a reshuffle to make it recede,” Pannika Wanich, one of Future Forward’s executive members said in an interview.

If this rip tide forewarns further ebbs of Thai democracy, the U.S. may have to recalibrate its balancing act.

“For decades, we have witnessed the U.S.’s complicated interplay of democracy promotion, and American security interests,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, lecturer at Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “This perplexity makes it difficult for the U.S. to find a balance in her relations with Thailand, between democratic rhetoric, and military power and benefits.”