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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Thai Protests over US Comment

Shoko Matsumoto

Dec. 21, 2015

A remark by the US Ambassador to Thailand has provoked such an angry response it could affect Thai foreign policy. Some groups in Thailand are questioning their country's relationship with the United States as the nation finds itself moving closer to China.

Ambassador Glyn Davies expressed concern about the strict policing of a law that bans criticism of the Thai royal family. His comments drew unexpected protests in the Southeast Asian nation, which been under military rule since last year.

A civic group supporting Thailand's military-led interim government rallied in front of the US embassy in Bangkok last month. Loyal to the royal family, the protestors vented their anger at the American government. They staged the rally in response to Davies’ comments about a Thai law known as lese majeste.

“We're concerned by the lengthy and unprecedented prison sentences handed down by Thai military courts against civilians for violating the lese majeste state law,” said the ambassador.

Under Thai criminal law, anyone who insults the royal family faces up to 15 years in prison. So far this year, police have detained 46 people for using social media to post comments allegedly critical of the monarchy, or other related crimes. A man who repeatedly defamed the monarchy was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Groups loyal to the monarchy reacted sharply to Davies' remarks, and some people even started a campaign to boycott American products. “The US is trying to interfere in Thailand's domestic affairs,” said a protestor. "The US is trampling on Thai tradition and history."

Relations between Thailand and the US soured following the military coup in May last year. The US has called on Thailand's military-led government to hold elections soon and return the country to civilian rule. But the interim government has delayed elections to 2017 and says there are no immediate plans to draw up a constitution that is necessary to hold the ballot.

Following the coup, military exercises between Thai and US forces have been scaled down. China, meanwhile, is strengthening ties with Thailand. The air forces of the two nations conducted their first-ever joint drill last month and Chinese planes took off from a base that US forces had used during the Vietnam War.

The Thai government is now considering turning to China to buy a submarine, a piece of equipment that is regarded as the most strategic item in any military's arsenal.

Davies referred indirectly to a tug of war between the US and China over Thailand. “I don't worry about Thailand's relationship with Beijing. I don't really spend any time saying to Washington, 'Here's how we get Thailand back,' because we haven't lost Thailand,” he said.

The latest developments suggest Thailand is finding it easier to deal with China than the US. That is because China does not always criticize other countries for lacking the principles of democracy.

Thailand has long practiced a balanced diplomacy when dealing with major powers. But if its leaders forge closer military ties with China, that could bring about a change in regional diplomacy.

Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, joined NEWSROOM TOKYO presenters Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in a studio satellite link to discuss the developments.

Shibuya: Why are the US ambassador's comments being regarded as so controversial? Could you please explain the background?

Pongsudhirak: There are diametrically opposed views about what the US ambassador said. He is new in town, and US-Thai relations have undergone some challenges, some tensions, over the last several years, so the ambassador defended what he thought was basic freedom of speech, basic civil liberties, by saying that those who express honest opinions should not be charged with lese majeste, and they should be allowed to say what they like as long as it does not interfere or undermine anyone. This has been construed, interpreted, by the other camp, by the pro-coup, conservative camp, that the ambassador’s remarks were inappropriate, they interfered in Thai internal affairs, and that the ambassador is not knowledgeable and aware of what’s been going on in Thailand. So there is that kind of tension, that kind of acrimony. Overall, I think the ambassador was just trying to defend basic human rights, human expression, and the other side thinks that is inappropriate.

Beppu: We saw in our report that China and Thailand are building a closer relationship. What impact will that have on the international dispute over China's maritime activities in the South China Sea and regional situations in Southeast Asia?

Pongsudhirak: You have to take a broad look at the trends and patterns of Thailand’s relations with its regional neighbors. Since the military coup in May 2014 the Thai military government has moved closer and closer to Beijing, and a bit further away from Western democracies that criticized the military takeover. So this is an ongoing trend, it also explains why the ambassador’s remarks were not taken kindly in some quarters in Bangkok. Thailand is going to be closer to China no matter what. China is a resident superpower. Even if Thai-US relations are good and smooth, Thailand is a longtime friend of China, and China is asserting itself in Southeast Asia, so the Thai-China axis is going to move closer and closer. But I think since the military coup in 2014, this has resulted in Thai foreign policy imbalance: having to rely too much on China at the expense of Thailand’s relations with the rest of the world. Japan is important here because Japan is an Asian democracy within the Western camp, but yet Japan is very close to Thailand. So I think the China-Japan relationship is most important to Thailand and mainland Southeast Asia, much more than the US-China relationship, which is more important in the maritime domain of Southeast Asia.

Beppu: How do you think Thailand will proceed with its relationship with the United States?

Pongsudhirak: The Thai government is going to be in power for some time. Since the military coup we are going through a transformation, a profound transition that happens once in a lifetime. So this means the military government is going to withstand, is going to ride out the storm, and push back on any criticism because it thinks it has to stay in power as the guardian of the Thai state. This means also that the Western democracies - the US, EU, New Zealand and others - will have to find some nuances to deal with Thailand. Thailand is a pivotal country in Southeast Asia, it cannot be ignored. At the same time it is going through a rough patch trying to promote some reconciliation, trying to overcome its polarization, and going through a profound transition, transformation. Going forward, Thai-US relations are going to be fractious. We have to see how it goes. Friction between the two countries is going to continue, but there is some space for co-operation. Thailand needs the US in order to regain its balance with the major powers, and the US needs Thailand in the new recalibrated relationship. In order to work on its rebalance in Asia, Thailand is just too pivotal for the US to ignore, and the US is too big a power for Thailand to ignore in its major powers mix.