Thailand, US resume high-level talks

Thailand and the United States resumed a high-level dialogue for the first time in three years yesterday as both sides sought to mend a relationship strained by the Thai military coup last year.

At a press conference in Bangkok after the 5th Thai-US strategic dialogue, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs Daniel Russel - who earlier met Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha - acknowledged that his country's laws do not allow full military ties until democracy returns to Thailand.

"Ultimately the full potential of that relationship... will be realised and dramatically enhanced when, as we all hope, the kingdom of Thailand is restored to a full civilian and democratic government," he said.

"There is a lot that we can do and are doing in the meantime."

Both countries pledged to strengthen cooperation on public health, medical research, human trafficking and law enforcement. Cobra Gold, the annual multilateral military exercise run by the US and Thailand - and scaled down this year - will continue next year.

The next strategic dialogue, which began in 2005, will be hosted by the US next year.

Bilateral relations between the US and its oldest ally in Asia had deteriorated since the coup, which was followed by a broad clampdown on civil liberties as the military consolidated power amid concerns over King Bhumibol Adulyadej's frail health.

The 88-year- old monarch did not appear in public during his birthday earlier this month, but was seen swearing in judges in a video footage released on Monday.

Convictions and sentences for insulting or defaming the monarchy have also spiralled, entangling even the new American ambassador to Thailand, Mr Glyn Davies. He is now being investigated for alleged lese majeste after raising concerns about the issue.

Mr Russel himself had raised hackles during his last visit to Bangkok in January when he called for inclusive reforms and commented on how the impeachment of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra could have been seen as politically motivated.

In response, the Thai ministry of foreign affairs summoned the US charge d'affaires to express its disappointment.

Analysts note that the US, which cut military aid to Thailand after the coup in May last year, appears to be adjusting its strategy given the likelihood of a prolonged period of military rule in Thailand. Elections have been postponed until at least 2017 while a new Constitution is being drafted.

"The Thai military government is in for the long haul, and they will pay the price that is necessary," says Chulalongkorn University political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak. Bangkok's increasing military and economic ties to Beijing - which has no qualms about working with the post-coup government - has also given it additional leverage.

Yet, the US will not find it easy to retain its strategic foothold in Thailand, say analysts. 

In a paper published this month by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Ian Storey points out that even before the coup, Thai leaders did not express genuine enthusiasm about the American "pivot" to Asia as they did not want to be seen as helping to contain China. 

Now, with the Thai military in charge and the pro-China moves it is making, "Thailand's relations with America will remain stalled, while the kingdom's cooperation with China enters a higher gear".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'Thailand, US resume high-level talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe