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America Vs. China After The Junta

One year after becoming an elected civilian prime minister, military coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is tightening security links with the Pentagon, increasing financial deals with China, and enjoying applause for containing COVID-19 at 58 dead with no transmissions in two months.

Prime Minister Prayuth's political enemies meanwhile suffered the past year being ousted from a lopsided, junta-stacked parliament or struggling in disarray.

Smoldering protests are starting to resume against his change from a 2014 bloodless coup leader to being sworn in on July 16, 2019 after his coalition won a parliamentary election and packed the Senate with appointees.

But his opponents are muzzled by Mr. Prayuth's recent Emergency Decree restricting free speech and assembly, which he claims is needed to contain COVID-19.

A politicized and weapons-hungry military, Thailand's need for investments, and its strategic territorial access in Southeast Asia attract both the U.S. and China which perceive him as a willing partner.

"Since Trump took office in 2017, Thailand has begun to tilt back toward the United States, buying more U.S. weapons systems and participating in more joint exercises with U.S. soldiers in 2019 and 2020," said Paul Chambers, an American lecturer on Southeast Asian affairs at Thailand's Naresuan University.

On July 9-10, Mr. Prayuth permitted U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville to lead the first foreign delegation to Thailand after most other international arrivals were blocked to prevent fresh coronavirus cases infecting the country.

The arrival of Gen. McConville's delegation prompted critics to demand the six Americans obey the 14-day mandatory quarantine that other foreigners and Thais endure when arriving.

In response, officials issued photos of Thai medical staff, wearing hazmat suits, cautiously approaching Gen. McConville's left nostril with a swab stick when he arrived.

He later appeared wearing a face mask while meeting similarly masked Prime Minister Prayuth, Army Commander in Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong and other Thais.

"Our two nations typically have hundreds of military trainings and events each year, and we are working in unison with the Royal Thai Government to ensure that all of our training scenarios will be done with the utmost care with regards to the pandemic,” Gen. McConville said.

Mr. Prayuth's biggest vulnerability is Thailand's crippled economy, reeling from virus-related shut downs.

He promised to spend billions of dollars to rescue farmers, entrepreneurs and tourism, and asked Thai and international investors to help.

"China has been more eager to invest in, and trade with, Thailand than the U.S. has," Mr. Chambers said. "Beijing is seeking to extend a high-speed train through Thailand and even build a canal through Thailand's Isthmus of Kra.

"Such activity has won Beijing increasing numbers of Thai business friends and military connections," Mr. Chambers said.

"While he [Prayuth] is certainly pragmatic in his dealings with the U.S. having happily visited the White House in late 2017, his far more numerous and meaningful interactions with China are underscored by an ideological affinity and attraction," Benjamin Zawacki, author of the book "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China," said in an interview.

"Authoritarianism, state supremacy, patriarchy, control," are Prime Minister Prayuth's priorities, Mr. Zawacki said.

Paul Quaglia, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer who now manages a Hong Kong-based political risk consulting firm, said in an interview:

"The core of this government -- like the core of the previous [Prayuth junta] government -- is composed of three retired military generals, all of whom served as army chiefs: Prayuth, [Deputy Prime Minister] Prawit and [Interior Minister] Anupong Paochinda.

"They are brothers-in-arms and consult with each other on important decisions," Mr. Quaglia said.

Mr. Prayuth's stability depends on military support, influential and wealthy royalists, and investors hoping a burst of government spending will sooth virus-related economic losses.

"The government is essentially a Bangkok phenomena, crated for Bangkok consumption and the periphery as passive audience," David Streckfuss, American author of the book "Truth on Trial in Thailand," said in an interview.

"There is literally no hope for any important change emanating from Bangkok. The only question is how long the periphery -- and particularly the north and northeast -- will allow themselves to be coerced into a begrudging consent," Mr. Streckfuss said.

Recent political and legal victories are also keeping Mr. Prayuth's
government afloat.

"In January 2020, Thailand's Constitutional Court -- which the junta had previously stocked with junta-loyal judges -- dissolved the Future Forward Party (FFP), perhaps Prayuth's most powerful parliamentary [enemy]," Mr. Chambers said.

"It was also helpful for Prayuth that FFP's leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, charismatic and anti-military, was forced out of politics by the court" for violating election laws, he said.

Mr. Thanathorn and his FFP lost their 80 seats in parliament.

Mr. Prayuth meanwhile is widely hailed because "Thailand's performance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the best in the world," former foreign minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said in an interview.

 

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three nonfiction books about Thailand including "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," available at https://www.amazon.com/Hello-Big-Honey-Revealing-Interviews/dp/1717006418

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