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Ehrlich: White House Meeting With Coup-Installed Leader

White House Meeting With Coup-Installed Leader

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- President Donald Trump's White House invitation to meet Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on October 2 allowed Bangkok's coup-installed military government to gain prestige and legitimacy while the junta's political opponents are fearful, muzzled and without a strong leader.

"Prayuth and the generals crave legitimacy, particularly from the U.S. and E.U. who have criticized revolving-door coups and governments in Thailand over the past 10 years," Paul Quaglia, a former C.I.A. officer in Bangkok, said in an interview.

"The U.S. press corps, unrestrained by Thai military censorship and hostile to a Trump administration, is likely to raise embarrassing questions about...palling around with coup-sponsoring generals," said Mr. Quaglia, 68, who is now the Bangkok-based director of PQA Associates, a private security concern in Hong Kong.

"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 September 25.

"The President and Prime Minister will discuss ways to strengthen and broaden bilateral relations and enhance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region," the announcement said without elaborating.

Mr. Prayuth's October 2-4 visit to the U.S. included Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, Interior Minister Gen. Anupong Paojinda and other government and private sector officials.

The prime minister was also invited to attend a gala dinner in Washington hosted in his honor by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Mr. Prayuth's visit "will help re-energize and further strengthen high-level ties between Thailand and the United States, advance mutual cooperation on several fronts, and reaffirm Thailand as the United States' oldest ally in Asia, as next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the first Thai-American contacts," Thailand's foreign ministry said.

"For the U.S., this reflects an attempt to tilt Thailand back as a close ally [which it was] prior to the 2014 coup and away from China," Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University lecturer in Southeast Asian studies, said in an interview.

The two leaders will probably discuss "increased defense ties, such as sales of more U.S. weapons to Thailand, an enhancement of U.S. participation in the Cobra Gold [U.S.-led multinational military] exercises which were slightly diminished following the 2014 coup, and security collaboration in disaster relief," said Mr. Chambers, a 51-year-old American.

"The U.S. is intent on a reduction in the trade deficit which the United States has with Thailand, intellectual property piracy issues, and increasing more investment and trade in Thailand," Mr. Chambers said.

Mr. Prayuth led a 2014 coup which ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's elected civilian government.

The White House meeting comes just after Thailand's Supreme Court sentenced the fugitive Ms. Yingluck to five years in prison on September 27, ruling in absentia she was guilty of "negligence" for not stopping alleged corruption costing billions of dollars during her failed rice crop subsidies.

After she missed a court ruling on August 25, she reportedly smuggled herself out of Thailand with the help of police, decoy cars and a black surgical face mask.

"She has not yet applied for political asylum and I don't know whether she will be able to get it," Mr. Prayuth told reporters on September 26 amid speculation that Ms. Yingluck was trying for asylum in England.

"I know [her whereabouts]...I have spies," said Mr. Prayuth who led the 2014 coup when he was army chief.

Ms. Yingluck reportedly joined her wealthy, manipulative brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is living out a similar fate after being toppled by the military in a 2006 coup in which Mr. Prayuth also participated.

Mr. Thaksin is currently dodging a two-year prison sentence for a corrupt real estate deal involving his now-divorced wife.

Today, Mr. Prayuth is widely seen as successfully muffling the Shinawatra siblings' huge number of supporters.

Mr. Prayuth, who retired as army chief in 2014, wields self-declared absolute powers which grant him and his junta legal immunity while banning political activity, free speech and other basic rights.

The military government insists it is not abusive because there is no evidence that any opponents have been killed by the regime, though they have been jailed and restricted in other ways.

Mr. Prayuth has repeatedly promised and delayed elections which have now been pushed to 2018 or possibly 2019.

For Mr. Prayuth, visiting the White House for the first time will enable the prime minister "to showcase to Thai people" that Washington "doesn't care about how he came into power and [will] hopefully legitimize the coup and his position," said Tom Kruesopon, a former advisor in Ms. Yingluck's government.

Mr. Kruesopon, a Thai national, said he worked in southern California during 1991-1992 for the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign, arranging for people to give speeches, and as deputy press secretary for Los Angeles' then-Mayor Richard Riordan during 1993-1995.

Mr. Trump will probably ask "how Thailand can help with [pressuring] North Korea, especially regarding financial transactions," Mr. Kruesopon said in an interview.

A handful of Thai businesses privately deal with North Koreans -- mostly through China -- according to analysts.

Thai businesses conducted $53 million in trade with North Korea during 2016 as Pyongyang's fourth biggest partner, Bloomberg news reported.

During the 1950-53 U.S.-led Korean War, Thai troops fought alongside U.S. forces in the south against the north.

Bangkok also sent troops to fight alongside the U.S. during the 1970s in the Vietnam War and CIA-led "secret war" in Laos, and briefly provided a small number of personnel during the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Thailand is a non-NATO treaty ally in Southeast Asia with the U.S.

"Thailand should try to convince the U.S. not to go to war [against North Korea]...because war is not a solution, and it will be very damaging for the people and the region," said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University's political science faculty.

"Ideally, I would expect Trump to raise concerns over the Thai democratic time-line [for elections], and the problems of human rights within Thailand," Mr. Titipol said in an interview.

"Unfortunately, I do not think Trump would discuss these issues."


***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest novel, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" tells of a San Francisco psychiatrist who abducts a female patient and takes her to Asia.

His online sites are:

https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

https://www.facebook.com/SheilaCarfenders/

Twitter
@nimists

Instagram
sheila_carfenders

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