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U.S. must continue to promote democracy in Southeast Asia

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The presidential candidacy campaigns are heating up in the United States. While the world hears so much from the different campaigns about how to tackle domestic issues, little has been said about the U.S. position in the promotion of democracy on the international stage. In the context of Southeast Asia, the role of the U.S. in supporting the democratization process is crucial; yet it continues to be obscured.

On Feb. 9, the U.S. and Thailand kicked off their annual military exercise under the code name, Cobra Gold. Initiated in 1980, Cobra Gold serves as a platform where now up to 13,000 American and Thai soldiers meet annually and conduct joint military exercises, bringing in both large paychecks and technological transfers to the Thai Army.

But Thailand is currently in the custody of a military regime. The Thai Army overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup in May 2014. The military intervention in politics has long been normalized — with the country experiencing 20 coups since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.

After the coup, an army of Western countries voiced their concern about the disappearance of democratic space. Subsequently, they imposed “soft sanctions” against the junta. In the case of the U.S., as a treaty ally of Thailand and according to its laws, Washington is obliged to punish the Thai junta for undertaking a coup. This is true with regards to any country receiving military aid from the U.S. when it experiences a coup.

On the day of the coup, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement: “I am disappointed by the decision of the Thai military to suspend the constitution and take control of the government after a long period of political turmoil, and there was no justification for this military coup. We are reviewing our military and other assistance and engagements, consistent with U.S. law.”

Accordingly, the U.S. government suspended financial assistance to Thailand worth $4.7 million, halting a number of joint programs between the two sides.

Already, Thailand was excluded from the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) — the largest international naval exercise in the world — held in June 2014 in Hawaii, in response to spiraling human rights abuses in the wake of the military coup. In an interview, then-U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney disclosed: “We take very seriously the whole human rights aspect to this coup in Thailand. One of the things our government has done is look at our military engagements.”

In addition to sanctions, Washington announced that, owing to the continued allegations of human trafficking, especially in the Thai sex and fishing sectors, Thailand was to be relegated to the lowest rank in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report (TPR), the same category as Syria, Iran and North Korea, for two consecutive years — 2014 and 2015. This announcement was another blow to Thailand’s reputation and this could result in further economic sanctions both at the government and business levels.

It should also be noted that during the U.S. Independence Day party hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok last July 4, none of the coup makers were invited; this was meant to send a strong message that the U.S. rejects the coup.

At the opening ceremony of Cobra Gold this year, U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies told the media that an improved relationship with Thailand would only be possible when democracy was reinstalled in the kingdom. “As deep and broad as our partnership is today, it will grow stronger still when, as the prime minister has affirmed, Thailand returns to elected governance. With a strengthened, sustainable democratic system, Thailand’s regional leadership role, and our alliance, can reach its full potential,” Davies said.

Although the Cobra Gold military exercise has been downgraded since the coup of 2014, it has continued as usual. Thus, as the American ambassador reiterated the need for the military government to return power to the Thais, his statement remained rhetorical and raised an issue of whether the U.S. is really sincere about buttressing political reform in Thailand.

Critics agree that Cobra Gold should be suspended altogether if the U.S. is serious about putting pressure on the despotic regime in Bangkok. Because Cobra Gold has not been suspended, it boosts the confidence and morale of the Thai junta to remain in power. At the end of the day, the Thai military is convinced that the U.S. will always be on its side; this might be true from the perspective of a broader international political environment.

Washington fears the expansion of influence of Beijing over Southeast Asia. The intensifying level of competition between the U.S. and China has led Washington to take a softer approach even against authoritarian regimes in the region. It is true that the U.S. offered its support to a series of authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia in the past, particularly during the Cold War. But the international landscape today is different. Nurturing democracy in Southeast Asia should be a long-term interest for the U.S., especially as an important strategy to contain the rise of China.

But what is happening in Thai-U.S. relations suggests Washington is unwilling to punish the junta for the sake of democracy. The anxiety of losing Thailand to China seems to produce an ambivalent attitude on the part of the U.S. regarding its democratic agenda. And sadly, none of the presidential candidates is interested in raising and speaking on this important issue.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.