THAI Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha will meet with US President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday, marking a significant shift in policy from his predecessor Barack Obama and a warming of ties between the two countries.
Relations between the United States and Thailand have been strained following a military-led coup in 2014 that saw Prayuth lead a campaign to overthrow democratically elected former-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The visit is seen by the White House as an opportunity to “strengthen and broaden bilateral relations”, but it has met with criticism from human rights groups who see Trump’s invite as a seal of approval of the autocratic leader and confirmation of the president’s willingness to embrace authoritarian leaders at the expense of human rights concerns.
“Get ready for PM Gen. Prayuth to crow long and hard that this invite means he now has Washington’s full seal of approval, and that Trump agrees with whatever comes next,” Asia Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Brad Adams told Reuters.
“Doubtless Trump fails to realise that this propaganda victory for Prayuth … will come at the expense of the people of Thailand who will pay for it in the form of intensified repression,” said Adams.
According to a statement from the White House, the United States aims to use the meeting to “enhance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.” But what exactly can we expect to be on – and left off – the agenda of this already controversial meeting?
What they will be talking about…
Trump is likely to use this opportunity to discuss Thailand’s continued ties with North Korea and a strategy for “freezing out” the dictatorial regime of Kim Jong Un.
The US has repeatedly pressured Thailand to drop the majority of its trade with the isolated nation. Last month Thailand claimed trade between itself and North Korea had dropped by as much as 94 percent this year.
However, an investigation by Reuters, found this may not be an accurate depiction of the reality.
After visiting seven jointly or partly North Korean owned businesses, they found a number of businesses appeared to still be trading with the regime.
The same investigation found the Bank of Thailand has no policy to close down accounts owned by North Koreans in Thailand.
Washington has expressed a desire for Thailand to take a diplomatic lead in the region in tackling North Korea. During a visit to Bangkok in August, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Southeast Asian countries to do more to cut funding streams to the hermit kingdom.
Trade and the surplus
Thailand was the United States’ 25th-largest goods export market in 2016, but the US maintains a US$18.9 billion goods deficit with Thailand, the country’s 11th largest.
According to Thailand’s commerce ministry, the country is eager to narrow the trade gap in order to avoid being labelled a currency manipulator by Trump.
Vice-minister for the PM’s Office Minister Kobsak Pootrakool has said he expects Prayuth’s Washington visit to yield more trade and investment between the two countries.
“US investors may feel more comfortable about doing business with Thai counterparts if the US government welcomes the Thai government,” he told The Nation.
In a meeting on Wednesday, Prayuth met with US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. According to Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, the two sides agreed to establish a committee to look at market openings for US pork.
Thailand also proposed that a dialogue mechanism be put in place to help the parties strengthen future cooperation.
The US has been pressing Thailand to up its efforts in the protection of intellectual property (IP). It has placed the country on its Priority Watch List, claiming inadequate and ineffective IP protection in the country, while demanding a fair and equitable market access in Thailand.
The US will likely press for a crackdown on counterfeit and pirated goods.
A senior Thai military source told Reuters, Thailand will discuss new defence purchase deals and finalise existing ones, including the delivery of four Black Hawk helicopters Thailand agreed to buy from the US before the 2014 coup.
What they won’t be talking about…
Thailand has experienced a worsening human rights record since Prayuth lead a military coup in 2014 to overthrow democratically elected former-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The military controlled government has detained thousands of people for criticising the government, the military and the monarchy under the draconian lese majeste and Computer-related Crime Act, which gives broad powers to the government to restrict free speech and enforce surveillance and censorship. According to HRW, there are more than 1,800 cases brought against civilians in military courts across Thailand. Such courts have been found to lack independence and fail to comply with international fair trial standards.
According to HRW, there are more than 1,800 cases brought against civilians in military courts across Thailand. Such courts have been found to lack independence and fail to comply with international fair trial standards.
The latest version of the constitution – penned by junta chartered drafters – protects junta members from accountability for abuses and allows the junta-appointed 250-member senate a direct role in selecting the prime minister.
Trump’s decision to receive Prayuth at the White House is seen by critics as another sign of Trump’s apathy towards human rights abuses and condoning of authoritarian regimes. Earlier in the year, he welcomed Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vietnam’s prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak – all of whom have been accused of human rights offences in their home countries.
In Trump’s bid to “strengthen and broaden bilateral relations,” it is unlikely human rights will make it on to the agenda in Monday’s meeting.
Additional reporting from Reuters