Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Pivot vs. Principles

Thailand’s coup gives the United States a chance to show that it actually cares about human rights and democracy.

By , the CEO of PEN America.
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

With Iraq imploding, Gaza exploding, Ukraine erupting, and Afghanistan in extremis, American foreign-policy principles are being tested and twisted. The notion of Washington allying itself with the champions of democracy and freedom worldwide -- an image that admittedly was always more convincing from a distance than close up -- has taken a particular beating in places like Egypt and Syria. The Obama administration's reticent, ambiguous policies have fed a story line of America's retreat from its values, the subplot of a broader narrative about Washington's shrinking role in the world.

But U.S. foreign policy always has many plotlines playing out at once. Among America's greatest foreign-policy advantages, derived from its many decades as a superpower, is its diplomatic reach and depth, enabling Washington to multitask as it works many issues and areas simultaneously. Relegated to the back pages by a whack-a-mole profusion of other conflicts, the coup and crackdown under way in Thailand offer Barack Obama's administration and its allies the chance to stand on principle amid a deepening crisis in an important country. It's an opportunity this administration can ill afford to pass up.

The Thai coup began in early May when, after months of street protests, an activist judiciary forced popularly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office, setting in motion a takeover by royalist generals who wrested control from her caretaker cabinet. Yingluck, the sister of powerful but polarizing ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (himself driven from office and into exile by a coup in 2006) was seen as a panjandrum on her brother's puppet strings. She was accused of corruption and nepotism and had been the target of rolling mass demonstrations, culminating in the 12th military takeover in less than a century. This latest overthrow comes at a precarious time: Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86 years old and his son, the crown prince, is far less popular. The generals aimed both to break the Shinawatras' populist hold on power once and for all, and to shore up the future of an elite-backed monarchy.

With Iraq imploding, Gaza exploding, Ukraine erupting, and Afghanistan in extremis, American foreign-policy principles are being tested and twisted. The notion of Washington allying itself with the champions of democracy and freedom worldwide — an image that admittedly was always more convincing from a distance than close up — has taken a particular beating in places like Egypt and Syria. The Obama administration’s reticent, ambiguous policies have fed a story line of America’s retreat from its values, the subplot of a broader narrative about Washington’s shrinking role in the world.

But U.S. foreign policy always has many plotlines playing out at once. Among America’s greatest foreign-policy advantages, derived from its many decades as a superpower, is its diplomatic reach and depth, enabling Washington to multitask as it works many issues and areas simultaneously. Relegated to the back pages by a whack-a-mole profusion of other conflicts, the coup and crackdown under way in Thailand offer Barack Obama’s administration and its allies the chance to stand on principle amid a deepening crisis in an important country. It’s an opportunity this administration can ill afford to pass up.

The Thai coup began in early May when, after months of street protests, an activist judiciary forced popularly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office, setting in motion a takeover by royalist generals who wrested control from her caretaker cabinet. Yingluck, the sister of powerful but polarizing ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (himself driven from office and into exile by a coup in 2006) was seen as a panjandrum on her brother’s puppet strings. She was accused of corruption and nepotism and had been the target of rolling mass demonstrations, culminating in the 12th military takeover in less than a century. This latest overthrow comes at a precarious time: Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86 years old and his son, the crown prince, is far less popular. The generals aimed both to break the Shinawatras’ populist hold on power once and for all, and to shore up the future of an elite-backed monarchy.

Coup leaders learned a lesson when their last anti-Shinawatra putsch was thwarted within just a few years by the emergence of Yingluck, buoyed by her family’s broad and stalwart public supporters, known as the Red Shirts.

This time, the plotters are taking few chances. Their crackdown on dissent and opponents has been aggressive. Immediately after the coup, in late May, television stations went dark and broadcasters were ordered to play patriotic songs. The constitution was suspended, parliament dissolved, and protests banned. Scholars and academics were called in for questioning, and several were detained for "re-education" aimed to blunt their criticism of the coup. Military leaders, headed by the coup leader and self-proclaimed prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, have since arrested local-level leaders sympathetic to Yingluck and have charged dissenters under an anachronistic law banning insults against the king. A popular three-fingered protest salute, a gesture borrowed from The Hunger Games movies, is now grounds for arrest. After the BBC’s service was taken off air for days right after the coup, the broadcaster launched a social-media-only service aimed to evade the censors. But the repression is equally forceful online: Hundreds of websites have been shut down, and critical reporting is banned, with hundreds of journalists being taken in for questioning and, in some cases, detention. Merely "liking" anti-coup groups on Facebook can be treated as a criminal offense. The junta has canceled the passports of its political opponents and is seeking the extradition of Red Shirt leaders and prominent sympathizers in exile.

Initial hopes that military rule would quickly yield to new elections and a transfer of control to a civilian government have been dashed. Coup leaders have sought to temper the backlash against their cruel tactics by marketing their crackdown as a campaign to stanch conflict and "bring back happiness" to a Thai people wearied by months of street protests and shutdowns. The generals spent more than $10 million to show all the World Cup soccer matches free of charge on terrestrial TV and hosted outdoor concerts and film series aimed to rebuild national pride. Apparently confident that the population has been quelled for the time being, Thailand’s military leaders have set out a vague and leisurely timeline for new parliamentary elections: They are to be held sometime in the next 15 months. Some commentators in the region have begun to compare today’s Thailand to pre-transition Myanmar, or even North Korea.

Western governments have been forthright in their disapproval of the military takeover and the strangling of Thai freedoms. The European Union has frozen official visits and put on ice ongoing talks on partnership agreements, including movement toward a free trade accord. The Australian government has sanctioned coup leaders and their families. After U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the coup and called for the restoration of civilian rule and respect for human rights, Washington suspended joint military exercises and cut back more than $4.7 million in aid to the Royal Thai Army. The frank talk of a coup will also lead to further isolation for Bangkok. The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act "restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree."

In response, the Thai generals have sought to blunt Western reprisals by showing that such measures will only drive them into the arms of China. The Thai military’s patrons include a wealthy elite that may find some natural attraction to a Chinese system in which rich oligarchs and crony businessmen can live in luxury, without having to worry about popular unrest or redistributive political schemes. In mid-June, senior military leaders traveled to Beijing for consultations on military cooperation with China. Officials in Beijing were quick to say that they have no truck with Thailand’s "internal affairs."

For the United States, Beijing’s embrace of Bangkok comes at a moment of rising tensions and shifts in Asia, and it risks thwarting the United States’ attempt to unite the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc as part of a pivot aimed to reinforce Washington’s central role in the region. Thailand has been an engaged partner on counterterrorism, a way station for troops and supplies into Afghanistan, and host of America’s largest joint military exercise in Asia, called Cobra Gold. The longer the junta holds on to power, the dilemma over whether to hold firm to principle or to act to preserve a useful relationship will likely sharpen for the United States and its allies.

Although the West may be tempted to dial back pressure for fear of losing a longtime ally to China, there are three reasons why Thailand is a place where Washington and its allies can afford to stand their ground, gradually ratcheting pressure up rather than down. First, there are signs that despite the warm embrace of Beijing, Bangkok’s generals are not impervious to the Western cold shoulder. The European Union is Thailand’s third-biggest trading partner and one of its largest investors.

In late June, after EU ministers called for the release of Thailand’s political detainees and announced a downgrade in the bloc’s relations with Bangkok, the reaction was swift — and positive. The junta announced an end to "special detention" and released all held under such authority, including a prominent Red Shirt activist. Since then, the provisional government has released most detained dissidents relatively quickly, avoiding the cause of jailed protesters from becoming a rallying cry for international outrage.

Wealthy Thais, on whose support the generals depend, value their ties to the West and felt the sting of Europe’s rebukes. "My family love Europe, so the EU announcement gave us a shock," Charoen Wattanasin, a retired badminton champion, said to the Financial Times. "It was like your parents hit you on the bottom." Some elite Thais have mobilized a boycott of European luxury goods like wine and perfume, but their willingness to abstain from travel, business dealings, and Western goods is almost certainly finite.

Second, if Thai coup leaders have learned anything from the resurrection of the Shinawatra dynasty by popular vote after the 2006 coup, it is that failure to deliver economic prosperity will sap the military’s inherently fragile support. The military seems acutely aware of this challenge and has ordered the disbursement of funds to peasant farmers under a rice subsidy program inaugurated by none other than Yingluck Shinawatra. Mindful of the Shinawatras’ populist appeal, the de facto government has also pledged to spend billions of dollars on ambitious infrastructure projects in the countryside.

But the suspension of EU cooperation talks will slow the recovery of Thailand’s tourist industry and put Bangkok behind regional competitors in opening free trade relations with Europe. As Thailand’s third-largest bilateral trading partner and third-largest investor, the United States also has significant leverage. Continued military repression will further damage Thailand’s already bruised reputation as a tourist destination, which it can hardly afford. Tourism accounts for as much as 20 percent of the country’s economy.

The third reason the United States and Europe need not worry about losing Thailand to Beijing is Beijing itself. Having witnessed up close the shakiness of Thailand’s last foray into military rule and the resilience of Thaksin and his Red Shirts, China has an interest in hedging its bets rather than cementing its support for the junta. The prospect of an enduring and tight partnership between Beijing and Bangkok’s coup leaders that fundamentally realigns ASEAN is thus remote. Knowing that its alliance with Beijing is one of convenience rather than true commitment will deepen the junta’s sensitivity to its pariah status in the West.

In a fast-globalizing world, where bilateral relationships are multidimensional and rising powers are quick to fill vacuums, shunning a junta that ousts an elected government is not as simple as it used to be. Nonetheless, by holding on to the moral high ground on Thailand, the West can earn the credibility to mediate and, in time, influence a Thai polity that is rooted more in democratic institutions and processes than in cults of personality. On Thailand, sticking to principles, maintaining support for journalists, dissidents, and activists demanding a return of their rights, and continuing to press for a return to democracy is not only the right policy, but it also stands a chance of working.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and a member of Facebook's oversight board. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

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