$1 Billion in U.S. Weapons Sales, Plus $261 Million More
$1 Billion in U.S. Weapons Sales, Plus $261 Million More
By Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- After the U.S. sold weapons to Thailand worth $1 billion during the past decade, this year's $261 million in U.S. arms deals will strengthen the current coup-installed military government against political opponents and Islamist separatists, symbolizing President Trump's unconcern for human rights, according to analysts and dissidents.
"Please understand, the government does not throw state money into just buying military hardware and weapons as some people claim," coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on July 11 defending the armed forces' expansion and increased spending.
Buddhist-majority Thailand purchased weapons from the U.S., China, South Korea, Russia Ukraine, Israel, Sweden, Italy and elsewhere during the past 10 years under military and civilian governments. Purchases include tanks, helicopters, armored vehicles, patrol vessels, submarines, combat aircraft and other armaments.
"Thailand has no real national security enemies. Internal security is important to Thailand in terms of an [Islamist] insurgency in the country's Deep South," said Paul Chambers, an American lecturer and advisor for international affairs at Thailand's Naresuan University. Nearly 5,000 people on all sides have died in Thailand's four southernmost provinces since 2004 where minority ethnic Malay-Thai Muslims are fighting for autonomy or independence.
"Also, the junta would like to obtain weapons which might be used against potential opponents of its continued authoritarian rule," Mr. Chambers, 50, said in an interview.
"The problem is that Washington's defense sales to the Thai junta can actually work to prop up military tyranny and prevent the return to democracy. Does Washington really want to see U.S weapons and supplies used by the junta to mow down those protesting in favor of democracy in Thailand?
"With more weapons, it will become ever more difficult for any pro-democracy group to dislodge the military from power," Mr. Chambers said.
"In the military sense, the biggest threat for junta is the people...that there will always be someone who wants to overthrow them," said Than Rittiphan, 25, a student member of the dissident New Democracy Movement.
"The U.S. also needs to contain China's influence over the region. That means the U.S. has no choice but to try to improve its relationship with Thailand as a geopolitically important strategic ally," Mr. Than said in an interview.
The latest deals "will make the junta appear to have U.S. recognition" and be "legitimate to stay in power," Mr. Than said. After seizing power in a bloodless 2006 coup, the military ruled this Southeast Asian nation for 16 months before allowing an interlude of fragile civilian governments.
That ended after a much more extensive putsch in 2014. Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has since retired as army chief and become prime minister.
International human rights organizations have criticized his junta's military trials and "attitude adjustment" re-education detention for dissidents, a ban on political activity and free speech, immunity from prosecution for regime officials and security forces, and other policies.
President Trump recently invited Mr. Prayuth to the White House. No date has been confirmed, but the prime minister is expected to enjoy a boost by meeting Mr. Trump inside the Oval Office.
U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies described Washington's weapons sales as evidence of long-standing support.
"We have sold almost $1 billion worth of arms to Thailand just over the last 10 years," Ambassador Davies said in a Bangkok Post interview published on July 1.
"The Thai government bought Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters from the U.S. after the  coup. And the U.S. also sold missile systems and naval equipment to Thailand," the ambassador said. He was apparently referring to Raytheon's Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles (ESSM) which the Massachusetts-based company describes on its website as NATO's "guided missile" that "provides self-defense battle space and firepower against high-speed, highly maneuverable anti-ship missiles in the naval environment."
Thailand is a major non-NATO U.S. treaty ally.
The ESSM could be expanded "from sea-based to a ground-based air defense arena. In a ground-based application, the ESSM missile will build on the proven capabilities of the ship-based application by providing the same air defense capability against the full threat spectrum, including enemy aircraft and missiles," Raytheon said. "In 2017 alone, $261 million worth of military deals are in the works," Ambassador Davies said without elaborating.
"People have a bit of a misconception about our relationship. They think the relationship ended after the  coup, that we stopped working together. That's not true," Mr. Davies said.
"Thai people hate his guts, I have to calm them down," Prime Minister Prayuth said in May 2016 describing Mr. Davies after the envoy publicly criticized the junta's human rights policies, according to The Nation Weekly's report on Mr. Prayuth "Facing Up To The U.S. Ambassador."
"We can only clarify our position. If he [Davies] does not get it, that can't be helped," Mr. Prayuth said at the time.
"The U.S. has a trade deficit with Thailand, and selling weapons to a military government is one 'natural' way to lessen it," said Benjamin Zawacki, American author of the forthcoming book, "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China."
One reason for buying more U.S. weapons now is because "Thailand sees an opportunity...perhaps unlikely to last long, to ingratiate itself to a U.S. administration plainly unconcerned with how an erstwhile ally is governed," Bangkok-based Mr. Zawacki said in an interview.
"Inasmuch as the Thai military can effectively make the claim to [Thailand's] civilian leadership and the public that these sales mean 'U.S. support' -- however defined or not defined -- their hold on power is strengthened," Mr. Zawacki said.
Mr. Prayuth repeatedly postpones holding elections but may stage polls in 2018 now that his junta's new constitution has diminished politicians' powers and entrenched the military in any next administration.
"Right now, others around the world may not take an issue with how this administration came to be, because there has been some understanding," Mr. Prayuth said on July 7 in his weekly nationwide televised broadcast.
"What they care more about is peacefulness and orderliness. This is because if there is no stability, then trade, investment and economic activity will halt."
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 Virtual Reality novel titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo," is an immersive three-dimensional, one-hour experience with Oculus Rift technology.
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