WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump will host Thai junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha at the White House next Tuesday, in a personal coup for a Thai autocrat who was shunned by Barack Obama’s administration for his regime’s poor rights record.
Ties between the long-time allies were strained by Prayut’s 2014 coup, which ushered in Thailand’s most authoritarian government in a generation.
But Trump’s administration has started to reset relations with the junta government. Since he took office Washington has dispatched high-level US diplomats, including the secretary of state, whose predecessors under Obama had noticeably avoided the kingdom since the coup.
“President Trump looks forward to reaffirming the relationship between the United States and a key partner and longstanding ally in Asia, the Kingdom of Thailand,” the White House said in a statement late Monday.
“They will discuss economic trade and investment, and also exchange views on the regional situation,” said junta spokesman Major General Werachon Sukondhapatipak on Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch lambasted the October 3 visit, which follows an invitation Trump extended during an April phone call, as the latest sign that the US president’s White House has “shamelessly thrown human rights considerations out the window.”
“Doubtless Trump fails to realize that this propaganda victory for Prayut and the junta will come at the expense of the people of Thailand who will pay for it in the form of intensified repression and human rights abuses when the general gets home,” said HRW’s Asia Director Brad Adams.
Thailand’s military has suspended democracy for more than three years, outlawing street protests, jailing dissidents and ramping up prosecutions under the kingdom’s draconian royal defamation law.
In response, the US trimmed back military aid and distanced itself from the regime, though Prayut did meet President Barack Obama during a ASEAN-US summit in California last February with other regional leaders.
Many in Southeast Asian have viewed the Trump administration with trepidation, fearing that he will give strongmen around the region a free pass on human rights.
The thaw between Washington and Bangkok comes amid concerns of rival superpower China’s growing clout in the region.
Beijing has enticed its smaller neighbours by offering massive investment and aid packages free of pressure to safeguard human rights or democratic principles.
Thailand’s generals have promised an eventual return to democracy but the timetable keeps slipping.
They have also written a new charter that curbs the power of elected politicians and enshrines the military’s oversight of any future government for the next 20 years.
Like Trump, the arch-royalist general Prayut enjoys berating the media and speaking off the cuff at length, including during weekly “Bringing Happiness Back to Thailand” speeches that are broadcast on all channels.