Brian Klaas is a Fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”
I arrived at Government House, the headquarters of Thailand’s military government, on a sweltering afternoon in mid-February. After convincing an assault-rifle packing solider that I wasn’t a confused tourist, I found my way to the office of the government’s spokesman.
While waiting for him to arrive, I got into a conversation with his colleague, Jesda Tivayanond. What did he think about President Trump? “It’s pretty clear he’s way out of his league,” Tivayanond said. “At the same time, he’s destroying America’s credibility globally. His attitude toward undermining media institutions is already rubbing off on the credibility of other institutions in the American government.”
I realized with astonishment that I, an American, had just been lectured about media freedom by a spokesperson for a military junta. I was stunned. After all, I had previously interviewed several journalists who had been repeatedly detained by Thailand’s junta for speaking truth to power. But it was hard to dispute Tivayanond’s point: Trump had recently upgraded his accusation of “fake news” to “very fake news,” and called the press “the enemy of the American people.” After just a month, the United States had ceded the moral high ground when it came to defending liberal values.
That anecdote is part of a much broader story. Trump doesn’t realize it, but he’s already changing politics around the world – from Bamako to Bangkok. Long-standing allies facing uncertainty are being forced to diversify international relationships. At the same time, undemocratic regimes are rejoicing that they may now have a White House that is much more likely to look the other way when they abuse human rights or gravitate away from democracy.
Thailand is currently far from a democracy, though it has been one in the past (albeit with a powerful monarch). It is ruled by a military junta that came to power in a May 2014 coup. The coup was Thailand’s 19th military incursion into politics since 1932, giving it the dubious honor of the most coup-prone country on Earth.
In the past two decades, Thai politics have followed a familiar pattern — elections followed by protests; protests followed by a coup; coups followed by a new constitution; and fresh elections that start the cycle over again.
Yet each time, Thailand’s alliance with the United States has played a moderating role, often accelerating the military’s return to the barracks. While Washington doesn’t call the shots in Bangkok, the long-standing partnership — which dates back more than 180 years — has been a valued voice for generations of Thai politicians. The alliance intensified during the Cold War, particularly when Thailand became a strategic staging area during the Vietnam War. As a result, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok is, by some measures, the third largest American diplomatic mission in the world.
For decades, that imposing presence ensured diplomatic leverage. In the wake of the 2014 coup, though, the U.S. response to the military takeover was muted and less effective. The new threat of a rising China waiting to swoop in and steal a staunch American ally gave diplomats fresh pause. Washington’s push back was correspondingly tepid. Then-President Barack Obama downgraded military cooperation but didn’t press hard. Thailand’s generals had less incentive to withdraw from politics.
Instead, the military aimed to consolidate political power — even once civilian rule was eventually reinstated. Thailand’s recently approved constitution allows the junta to appoint 250 members to the upper house of parliament, acting as a check on elected representatives. The next prime minister will be an unelected one, leaving open the possibility that retired-Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha (and current prime minister) or another military figurehead will remain in charge.
In defending this concept, Thai generals often refer to the virtues of “managed democracy” or the even more euphemistic “Thai democracy.” Such contorted labels are tactical, providing a linguistic fig leaf necessary to give Western governments an excuse to confer international legitimacy onto the next government. But we must not mince words: The new constitution does not set up “Thai democracy.” Instead, it enshrines de facto military control into a carefully packaged counterfeit democracy.
In pursuit of that counterfeit democracy, Thailand’s military junta may now have found its most important (and most unwitting) ally: Trump
Since Trump’s election, Obama’s halfhearted chastisement has so far been replaced with a full-hearted embrace of military reengagement. In mid-February, the United States dispatched the highest-ranking American military official in the Eastern hemisphere, Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., to signal Washington’s support for Thailand’s military government. Such moves lend international legitimacy to the junta’s decision to maintain its dominance.
And yet, Thailand’s military government doesn’t see a reliable partner in Trump’s administration, even as they take a wait-and-see approach to his presidency. Lt. Gen. Werachon Sukonthapatipak — the chief spokesman for the military government — explained to me that Thailand now feels a more urgent need to diversify its alliances: “We value 184 years of close ties with the United States, and we want to maintain that. But we also realize that we are a small country and we need to maintain a good balance. We will try our best to maintain good relations, but we are also realizing that we need to have more engagement with China.”
Werachon is good at his job. He knows how to say something diplomatically without saying it directly. But he was referencing the fact that Thailand has ramped up military purchasing from Russia and has tightened economic and military cooperation with China. After all, if Trump puts “America First,” Thailand knows it will be nowhere near second and they must plan accordingly.
A journalist I interviewed — unnamed here because Thailand’s military government is not kind to journalists — put it more plainly: “We have to detach ourselves from the mayhem of the U.S. and just be pragmatic. . . . We still will probably be America’s girlfriend but we now need to wink at the Russians and tease the Chinese.”
As those relationships diversify, Thailand faces less pressure on the international stage for the government to ever create a genuine democracy. After all, Trump almost never talks about democracy or human rights. Russia and China certainly don’t care about them in Thailand. So why not enshrine military rule into Thailand’s future?
Abhisit Vejjajiva, who served as Thailand’s prime minister from 2008 to 2011, was equally direct in articulating his worries to me about Trump. “When it comes to democracy, we don’t believe that Trump will come to the defense of anybody,” he said, “but our bigger fear is that Trump is unraveling the liberal democratic world.”
Some Thais do see a silver lining in Trump’s businesslike diplomacy. Perhaps, they suggest, he would be open to a bilateral trade agreement? But in the end, their hopeful thinking is belied by Trump’s seeming indifference to the country: He has tweeted about Thailand four times, and all four of them referenced Miss Thailand in a beauty pageant:
Others contend that Thailand may be able to outsmart Trump at his own game to gain concessions. “If Thailand can somehow link ISIS to the low-level [Muslim separatist] insurgency in southern Thailand, then Trump might help Thailand,” suggested Thai political expert Ekachai Chainuvati. He may be right, but it would be an enormous and dishonest stretch to make that link.
One hears echoes of the Thai view of Trump around the world. The combination of his America First rhetoric and his apparent indifference to the virtues of democracy, freedom and human rights, have led countries to reassess their place in it. And unfortunately, their reassessments almost uniformly involve a turn away from the now shaky leadership of the United States; a turn toward Russia and China; and turning their back on democracy. On the bright side, I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to lecture us on media freedom.