BANGKOK—When Thailand’s military seized power almost three years ago, the Obama administration shunned it. Washington was angered by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s suppression of political parties, dissidents, and the media. But, as you might have guessed, the Trump administration has a different view, and the strongman finds himself cordially invited to the White House.
In Bangkok, Government House was predictably puffed up at the news. The Twitterverse, meanwhile, bristled with outrage over Trump’s decision to invite Prayuth as well as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (plus Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong).
“Is Assad next?” one tweep wondered, echoing critics who saw the invitations as a predictable move by a U.S. president who praises strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Trump loves his human rights abusers,” one critic tweeted.
Trump showed little knowledge of—let alone interest in—Southeast Asia during the presidential campaign and after his election. Now, not only has he discovered the region, he is trying to embrace its leaders.
But are these invitations merely evidence of a U.S. president’s penchant for demagogues? Or has the Axis of Adults around him decided the U.S. needs friends in the region right now as tensions grow in Korea and between the U.S. and China? Perhaps all of the above.
Thailand’s Prayuth may well be a kindred spirit for Donald Trump. The two men share a disdain for and fear of journalists. While Trump attacks the media as “disgusting” purveyors of “fake news” and talks about changing libel laws to go after offending outlets, Prayuth has cowed local media into self-censorship and run off disagreeable foreign press, including The New York Times.
A subcommittee Prayuth appointed has proposed a triumph of Orwellian double-speak called the Protection of Media Rights and Freedom and Promotion of Ethics and Professional Standards Bill—a.k.a. “the media control bill”—that would require media outlets to be licensed, with scofflaws susceptible to three years in jail or a fine of up to $1,700.
And while Trump and underlings such as Sean Spicer and Stephen Miller strive to portray the president as an imperial figure who will brook no opposition, Prayuth makes good on that kind of threat. Last August he rammed through a referendum that approved a new constitution, written by an Army-appointed committee, which leaves the country at best quasi-democracy that will be overseen by the military for decades.
“For a society that has overthrown two military dictatorships over the past two generations, what has been happening in Thailand is astonishing,” Thai political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak writes in the Bangkok Post.
But Thitinan tells The Daily Beast that Trump’s invitation to Prayuth does not signal some budding bromance between autocrats. Instead, it’s a “recalibration of values and interests” and an attempt to pick up a ball former President Barack Obama dropped.
“Despite good intentions, the Obama administration came up short,” says Thitinan, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University. “China has been winning Southeast Asia. In Washington they’re waking up to the fact that this is consequential. When you talk tough to China you have to follow through, because China will test you. Obama was talking big and coming up empty. He didn’t follow through; he didn’t show the muscle.”
Thitinan says that while Obama’s cherished human rights priorities will not be abandoned, “they will be superseded by the geopolitical interests of the United States.”
It is a matter of realpolitik, agrees Lindsey W. Ford, director for Asian Security at the Asia Society Police Institute in Washington. Principles, human rights, and democracy are simply parts of a “bigger strategic picture,” she tells The Daily Beast. The U.S. emphasizes its alliances as foundations of its foreign policy, “but our Southeast Asia alliance has been in trouble for some time,” she explains.
America stopped showing that it values those relationships, resulting in a “strategic shift toward China” in the region, she says. “In the last couple of years there’s been a perception that the U.S. didn’t have the ability or the will to lead as we had in the past, and China was stepping into that breach.”
Prayuth, 63, has done much to deserve scorn and suspicion since he overthrew democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. The grim-faced ultra-royalist first installed martial law and then responded to criticism by replacing it with Article 44, an even harsher constitutional provision that essentially allows him to perform any act—executive, judicial or legislative. He also has toughened enforcement of the country’s lèse majesté law, which criminalizes “insulting” the royal family—largely, critics say, to stifle dissent and silence opponents.
Thailand and the Philippines are two of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, whose 30th annual summit just concluded in Manila—under Duterte’s chairmanship. So devoted is the bloc to not meddling in members’ internal affairs that it has come to be dismissed as “an unwieldy collective of dictatorships, authoritarian states and a monarchy, along with fledgling democracies.”
“The ratbag of dictators, autocrats and juntas that dominate ASEAN’s ranks perceive transparency, accountability, and rule of law as existential threats rather than foundations of good governance,” is the way Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch has described the group.
Even so, the organization would prefer that Southeast Asia not become a Chinese redoubt, and would likely welcome a more robust American engagement. At the same time, says Kan Yuenyong, of the Siam Intelligence Unit, ASEAN could play the role of a mediator on behalf of North Korea in its ongoing nuclear-arms dispute with America, as well as a body that could help cool relations between the superpowers as they jockey for influence in Asia.
“I feel this is a long-term game between the United States and China; an overall chessboard in the Asia-Pacific, not just about the U.S. and Korea. There’s very deep geopolitical maneuvering going on and we have to understand this is a long game,” he says.
To show just how much of a pivot he is prepared to make in Southeast Asia, President Trump later this year will attend the U.S.-ASEAN summit and the East Asia summit in the Philippines, and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam.
But will Trump be treated with resepect?
Prayuth has accepted the invitation to the White House. But Duterte, ever one to thumb his nose at “the sons of bitches” in America, says he can’t commit because “I’m tied up.” After all, he said, “I am supposed to go to Russia; I am supposed to go to Israel.”
With such options, how could anyone for sure accommodate the leader of the free world?