Thailand’s ruling junta now has replaced martial law, which had been in force since the coup in May 2014, with legislation under Article 44 of the interim constitution. This shift has been heavily criticized by human rights organizations, many foreign countries, and some Thai media outlets. Human Rights Watch has called the shift to operating under Article 44 an attempt to give Prayuth “unlimited powers without safeguards against human rights violations.” The New York Times, in an editorial released April 10, called the shift “trickery and false promises”---“a cynical sleight of hand” that has only given “even more draconian powers for the ruling military junta led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.” In response, Thailand’s new ambassador to the United States, in a letter to the New York Times, claimed that the Times editorial had it all wrong---that under Article 44, the junta operates under measures “limited in scope [and] governed by due process” and that, “since May 2014, Thailand’s leaders have lifted the country out of political paralysis and violence.”
Yet despite the new Thai ambassador’s charm offensive in America, the Thai government also appears to be realizing that it is unlikely to change many democracies’ opinion of it, as long as unelected leaders remain in power in Bangkok. At first, in the months following the May 2014 coup, Thai diplomats, and the junta leaders themselves, aggressively tried to shape global opinion of the putsch. This outreach was followed by a period, earlier this year, of angry backlash against even the most muted foreign criticism. When Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel made a speech in Bangkok in January at Chulalongkorn University, he noted that “our [the United States’] relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago.” He also urged Thailand to end martial law and visited former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and other politicians, from both major political parties, who had been sidelined by the coup. The Thai government reacted furiously, summoning the charge d’affaires from the U.S. embassy in Bangkok (who was the top American diplomat in Thailand at the time, since the ambassador post was vacant) and expressing extreme disappointment with Russel’s comments.
Now, Bangkok appears, for the most part, to be recognizing that its relations with democracies will remain strained---the United States recently put off planning for next year’s Cobra Gold exercises, for example. While Prayuth has been promoting closer strategic and economic ties with China almost since the day after the coup, the Thai government also recently has begun aggressively courting other governments that have been uncritical of the junta. When Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Bangkok in early April, Bangkok and Moscow inked deals to increase Russian direct investment in Thailand, and vice versa; the two sides hope to double bilateral trade within two years. The two sides also agreed to facilitate greater Russian investment in Thailand’s energy sector. (Medvedev, of course, offered no criticism of Prayuth’s human rights record, and Prayuth called Russia a “friend” for standing by Thailand after the coup.) Meanwhile, Prayuth’s government also has been trying to foster closer strategic ties with India, which despite its own vibrant democracy tends to be uncritical of the rights records of other nations in its neighborhood.
This outreach to Russia, China, and other powers who express no interest in critiquing Thailand’s rights record is a savvy move by the junta. It could put pressure on the European Union, the United States, Australia, and, most importantly, Japan to warm up strategic ties with Thailand again. But Thailand’s economy will remain in serious trouble. As long as Thailand’s politics remain unstable, all the deals signed with Moscow or Beijing are not going to lure more investment from the biggest foreign players in Thailand---Japan, most notably.