THAILAND HAS been a major non-NATO ally of the United States since 2013, and Pentagon planning for potential operations in Asia depends heavily on its cooperation. But for five years, the country’s military has been denied U.S. aid because of the coup it carried out against a democratically elected government. The leader of the resulting junta, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has now managed to have himself installed as the prime minister of a nominally elected civilian government, and his regime and some in the Pentagon are hoping for a full restoration of relations. They shouldn’t get it.
The aid cutoff was the consequence of a provision of the Foreign Assistance Act that bars military cooperation with countries where an elected government has been ousted by a coup. The ban can be lifted if the State Department certifies there has been a restoration of civilian democratic rule. But Mr. Prayuth’s confirmation as prime minister on Wednesday was less an exercise in democracy than a crude mockery of it. It followed a grossly unfair election campaign from which some opponents of the regime were banned and others were hounded with criminal charges.
The new constitution gave the military a huge advantage: an appointed, 250-seat upper house empowered to participate in the election of the prime minister together with the 500-seat lower house. Such is the unpopularity of the charmless Mr. Prayuth, however, that he almost lost anyway. After the March election, an opposition coalition appeared to have won a majority in the lower chamber, while the military’s party won fewer than the 126 seats it needed to confirm Mr. Prayuth.
That led to another orgy of manipulation. First the election commission changed the rules for apportioning seats after the vote, with the result that the opposition lost its majority and 11 tiny parties were each awarded one seat. All promptly endorsed Mr. Prayuth, giving him — not by coincidence — the votes he needed. The regime picked up other support by having the courts disqualify some opposition members — including the most popular opposition leader. It reportedly offered bribes equivalent to millions of dollars to deputies to switch sides.
The result is a fragile coalition of 19 parties giving Mr. Prayuth a five-seat majority in the lower house. Its very weakness will serve to further empower the military and Thailand’s erratic king, who has been using Mr. Prayuth’s regime to persecute his enemies, several of whom have been murdered or abducted in neighboring Laos.
The Trump administration has not hesitated to collaborate militarily with gross violators of human rights, such as the regimes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But a State Department certification that Thailand’s government now can be called civilian and democratic would trample a law Congress enacted precisely in order to deter what the Thai military has done. If the administration wishes to restore some cooperation, it can do so under a waiver the law permits. But it should do so gradually and in exchange for tangible human rights concessions; and it should recognize that a return to democracy remains to be accomplished in Thailand.