Kristie Kenney has always been a well-known, high profile ambassador. Notorious for her ‘never-ending’ childish selfies and intensely disliked by the protesters- they perceived her as being pro-Yingluck- the ambassador once again came under fire for the US embassy’s Independence Day party.
Nothing about the party or the ambassador herself was particularly striking. Those that she chose to invite were, however. Not only were the main leaders of the NCPO (National Council for Peace and Order) not invited- the members of the Democrat Party were also all absent- but a lot of pro-Thaksin figures were invited, and indeed, did show up. Veerakarn Musikapong, a well known UDD leader was seen, along with Chaturong Chaisaeng, Kittirat Na-ranong, and Chadchart Sittipunt; all of them are former ministers under Yingluck who were ousted with the coup. An anti-monarchist band was even playing at the party.
Kenney, understandably, has immediately sought to downplay these invitations, claiming that thousands had been invited from across the country, and that there was no political message intended from the invitations. Few believe her. For diplomats and politicians, there is no such thing as a ‘time-off’ where gestures did not matter. The United States has also on so many occasions expressed support for the Yingluck government and been so vocal in condemning the coup, and so it would be very easy for anyone to think that this is a clear declaration of the USA’s stance on the situation in Thailand: that they remain firm supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra. If Kenney thinks that the public will not interpret these invitations as a message, then she is very naïve indeed.
Of course the United States could try to argue that Kristie Kenney has been acting all in her own private capacity. But if that’s the case, then that’s akin to an ambassador creating her own foreign policy. It would be ridiculous of the United States allowed that much power to any one ambassador.
The USA’s stance has been unchanging through the political turmoil. During the protests, the embassy repeatedly issued calls for the respect of democratic institutions- ignoring completely that the broken system of democracy in Thailand was the very reason protesters were on the streets. Once a coup overthrew Yingluck, John Kerry was one of its harshest critics, hypocritically condemning it without considering any of the benefits that it had brought.
These two cases show an ignorance of realities on the ground. Unsurprising, considering that according to American writer Michael Yon, Kenney forbade her officials from ever visiting protest sites and thus learning more about the situation. This is further explained by Stephen B. Young, son of a successful former ambassador to Thailand who served during John F. Kennedy’s tenure as President of the United States. He wrote in an editorial in the Bangkok Post:
It is a worry but not a surprise that the current American government has failed to properly understand Thaksinism. Too many American officials, from the ambassador on down, work in a weird office environment literally walled off from Thailand…American officials in Bangkok — as with our embassies all over the world now — just don’t get out to get the true feel of a country and its people. Their ability to judge has been crippled by these self-imposed limitations…Our embassy is cutting itself off from learning the truth about Thailand.
This self-inflicted ignorance is distressing, indeed, considering that it has led the embassy and the US government into continuing to be firm supporters of the Thaksin regime without truly understanding what is going on. It is even more distressing, especially to the USA, when it is considered what implications a stressed tie to Thailand will bring. As the United States’s first ally in Asia (and currently a major non-NATO ally), Thailand has been extremely valuable to the United States in the past. Now, however, there is a real and oft-expressed rising anti-American sentiment especially among users of Thai social media. While this may not be indicative of the government’s stance, it cannot be denied that the United States government has been hostile towards the junta. The Independence Day party in which no key NCPO members were invited only make this very public.
If the United States continues to ignorantly pursue a policy of coldness towards the NCPO, then it must consider the possible implications.
It’s simple geopolitics. With the conflict in Eastern Ukraine (which Obama, hilariously, called an example of ‘American strength’), turmoil in the Middle East and hostility in the South China Sea, the United States is under pressure in all corners of the globe. Facing resurgent and assertive nations like China and Russia, this is not a time in which it can afford to lose any of its allies. China, on the other hand, is on a hunt for new allies. Although Thailand has historically been a major ally of the United States, it could lose Thailand to its opponent if they are not careful with foreign policy. With the US so hostile and unreceptive to the NCPO, China may very well attempt to fill in the gap.
The American Interest writes:
Is it possible that China would seek to take advantage of this opening? The two countries have no history of conflict. They have no territorial disputes…As Bower [of CSIS] put it, “You could lose an alliance and if you don’t lose an alliance, you could in effect lose the primacy of a friendship with one of ASEAN’s anchor countries.”
Indeed, China has been trying to fill in the gap. In early June, a delegation of Thai military commanders were invited to China for talks on regional security and joint training; this came not long after the coup and amid Western condemnation. Also in early June, General Prayuth assured the public that Thailand remained committed to its strategic partnership ‘at all levels’ with China’. It also must be remembered that ever since the opening up of China, Thailand and China have remained close; Thailand often acts as an unofficial ASEAN ‘envoy’ to China due to having no territorial and ethnic conflicts which allow talks to go smooth and unhindered.
A drift away from the United States towards China would be a loss for the former country. Barack Obama’s much hyped ‘pivot to Asia’ has, on the whole, not been very successful; everyone knows that its motive was to contain the rise of China, but now China is still as assertive as ever about its claims in the South China Sea, and the United States continues to risk being seen as simply a paper tiger. Thailand was the country that supported the US throughout the Cold War and today still remains very important to US strategy. Covert operations are often conducted in Thailand- an interrogation of al-Qaeda terrorist was conducted in Utaphao airport. It hosts military war games between various nations. And last but not least, it is still the stepping stone in Asia that the US needs; where else can the US base itself in its mission to rebalance power in Southeast Asia? Coupled with growing problems in maintaining the US’s influence in eastern Asia, can the United States really afford to lose a strategic country in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia to the very country it is seeking to contain?
Yet this is exactly what the government of the United States is doing. It has harshly condemned the coup. It has cut off some military assistance. It has threatened to move Cobra Gold to another country. (A rather strange threat, as if Cobra Gold, a multi-country military joint-training event, is moved out, it would make it even easier for Thailand to continue with negotiations on joint-training with China, which was a topic of discussion during the visit). And most recently, it is publicly shunning the NCPO’s leaders from a party, while inviting major figures all associated with Thaksin and even anti-monarchist movements.
Clearly this is a diplomatic blunder. The friendship between the US and Thailand are old, historic and deep, but Thailand’s military leaders only have so much patience, and greater friendship with China is not an uninviting prospect. Not only is the United States refusing to withdraw support to leaders who never acted democratically while in office, but they are openly being hostile to the government that now runs the country and seems to be willing to let the country drift from its embrace while the US needs it most. The United States is blundering its way into alienating an ally it needs, and it’s doing this because it had failed to investigate and properly understand Thailand’s own political troubles.
It is suspicious, indeed, what secret motives the US may hold which makes them so supportive of Thaksin and Yingluck. Were any secret deals made, perhaps involving natural resources? It is unlikely that we can find out, although it is worth speculating and looking into. If there are any, however, the United States should consider that for now, the days of Thaksin and Yingluck are past. In the long term it could possibly receive far more benefits from continuing to support Thailand than to stick to blindly giving support to the Shinawatras.
If the United States truly supports Thailand and wants it to develop into a mature, sustainable democracy, it should end anti-coup rhetoric that ignores realities it does not want to hear, and should have a more inclusive attitude towards the NCPO. Kristie Kenney should strive to gain a better understanding of Thailand’s political situation, and refrain from committing any more diplomatic blunders. In the long term, it will be more beneficial towards both the United States and Thailand that reform of the country be completed successfully.