Eight months after the May 22, 2014 coup in Thailand, reactions have come from western countries such as the U.S. and EU that have degraded diplomatic and military relationships in Thailand. But today, eight months after the coup, a senior diplomat from the U.S., Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel, is visiting Thailand. What would this mean to Thai-U.S. relations, as well as regional stability and the Thai-U.S. alliance in its 182nd anniversary? Tonight on Tob Jote, I’ll be talking with Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel.
QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel, thank you for joining me.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Thank you very much for having me, Khun Nattha.
QUESTION: Before we are moving forward to see the current situation and future situation between Thailand and U.S. relations, I just want to bring you back to our recent past of the past eight months. You were here in Thailand last year in April. Then 44 days later it was the coup on 22nd of May last year. Were you disappointed that the coup happened?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Well, without a doubt the coup was a setback to U.S.-Thai relations but let’s remember that we have a very rich and deep history of more than 180 years and we have a very rich and important future. The U.S. and Thailand cooperate on a broad range of issues that are really important to each of us, to the region, to the world. Whether it’s law-enforcement or counterterrorism or whether it’s economic development, trade, and investment. It’s science and technology, it’s regional security, it’s education. These are big and important agendas for each of us. That hasn’t ended although, of course, we have made adjustments and the coup in May had an impact on our relationship.
QUESTION: But the press statement by Secretary John Kerry was very strong in condemning Thailand after the coup. Did you try to stop him because you came and saw the situation in Thailand or did you support him to issue that statement?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Well, this is the way that I hope you and Thai people will look at it. America is your friend. I’m here as a friend. Secretary Kerry spoke as a friend. And when you think about it, it’s really your friends who will tell you honestly what they think and what they see as your real interests. Part of the reason that Secretary Kerry sent me here is to make sure that we are communicating directly and openly. We have a wonderful embassy here led by a great Chargé d’affaires but it’s also important for the leadership, for the political parties, for civil society to hear directly from a Washington official and to be able to speak and know that they are being given a full hearing directly by Washington. That’s my mission.
QUESTION: Given that Thailand is still under martial law and we are still moving toward roadmap for the next election, but to have you here even though under martial law, does it mean the situation between Thailand and the U.S. is getting better?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Well, what will ultimately allow the U.S.-Thai relationship to reach its full potential will be the restoration of a credible, democratically-elected civilian government. And part of what concerns us and one of the main messages that I brought to all of my meetings, to both of the political parties; to the government; to civil society. Is that only an inclusive process, a process that allows each segment, not just a few, but each segment of Thai society to feel that their voice is being heard and that they have a role to play in designing the new constitution or the next government. Only an inclusive process will lead to long-term stability and long-term stability is important not just to Thailand but it’s very important to the United States because Thailand is such an important ally and partner.
QUESTION: You came to talk with different parties. Talking to former Prime Minister Khun Yingluck Shinawatra, Khun Abhisit Vejjajiva, and current Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn. What’s the view that you’ve got from talking to at least three parties?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Well, I’d also add that I’ve talked more broadly than that to a number of representatives of civil society and academia, etc. Making sure that we have a balanced picture of views because what’s on the minds of the Thai people matters a lot to us. There’s no doubt that all of the people that I met love their country. I think that there is a common theme, an understanding, that there should be peace and there should be reconciliation although there may be different views about what exactly reconciliation looks like and how to get there. I think that the importance that all of the people that you mention place on their friendship and partnership with the United States and the good opinion of the international community gives me confidence that our messages are being heard. I believe that I got a very fair and open hearing from former Prime Ministers Yingluck and Abhisit as well from Foreign Minister Tanasak. And that dialogue, that exchange of views, is, I think, one of the things that can contribute to improvement in the situation. As the situation improves so too will the U.S.-Thai relationship increasingly normalize.
QUESTION: You told me after discussion with different parties everyone seems to have the idea of moving toward reconciliation but still have different views. How do you think they can reconcile or move towards reconciliations and to move towards inclusive process like what the U.S. would like to see? Do you think it would be probable?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Different parties have different roles. Right now I would offer that there is a key role to be played by the government in creating more political space that will allow not only the political parties but the different parts of Thai society more freely to express their views and to participate actively in the discussion about what kind of government is best here in Thailand. I was very direct and very candid in my discussions with the Foreign Minister about our concerns regarding the continuation of martial law. I was very direct and very open about the importance that we place on inclusivity, on inclusive political process. And I was also very direct in sharing our concerns that the restrictions on freedoms, and these are universal freedoms, like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and so on. That those restrictions in the long term work against the best interests of stability in Thailand. They are certainly problematic in terms of Thailand’s international reputation and Thailand’s international influence.
QUESTION: You raised the issue of your concern on martial law. Do you have a timeframe in mind for how long you can think of the U.S. can tolerate the situation of martial law in Thailand?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The way to think about this issue, I think, is holistically. So clearly the sooner that democratic and civil rights are restored to a broad spectrum of Thai citizens, the better. Timing matters, the timing of elections matter, but timing is only one aspect. The inclusive nature of the dialogue is another. Adherence to universal principles, international principles, is yet another. So the key thing, I believe, is for all Thai citizens to be allowed to give voice to their beliefs and to their hopes in a constructive way because I think that you want all Thai citizens to feel that they have a stake in the process. If people are presented with a fait accompli, something that they don’t feel reflected their views in a…and certainly in a democratic system there will be problems.
QUESTION: If the timeframe is not the issue it means that the roadmap of the current government to have elections, perhaps early next year, is still bearable?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The timeframe is certainly, timing is certainly one issue. My observation is that the longer that martial law remains in force, and the longer that it takes for the inclusive dialogue to occur, the longer that it takes for a constitution draft to be developed that reflects the views of not just one segment of society, but the broad-spectrum of society. And the longer it takes to get to elections, the harder it is for Thailand to convince the international community that this story will have a good ending. That the government is, in fact, committed to the full restoration of democracy. I worry about the impact on the Thai economy, which is significant. 2015 is a hugely important year partly because of the ASEAN Economic Community but also because the TPP, the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, will be concluded this year and it represents 40% of global GDP. Thailand is not now a member of the TPP negotiating process, but Thailand’s neighbors are. Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei. And when that TPP free market opens, the competition will increase not decrease. My point is: the world is changing. There are many, many challenges that mean that the US and Thailand should be cooperating more actively, not less. So, the sooner that these steps are taken, the better.
QUESTION: What’s the answer you got from Foreign Minister in order to keep martial law? He must be telling you that to keep peace and order in Thailand is still very essential at this moment.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: There’s a long-standing principle of diplomacy that you don’t read out to the press what the other person said in a confidential diplomatic meeting so I will leave it to your Foreign Minister and to Foreign Minister Thanasak to decide what he wants to say about his message. However, I feel that he listened very carefully to me. I tried to be respectful but clear and direct in conveying Washington’s views and concerns. I thought I got a very respectful hearing. Secondly, let me say that maintaining peace and order in a country is, of course, the responsibility of any government but it very seldom requires recourse to martial law or to tough measures. As a friend of Thailand, I believe that the sooner that martial law is lifted…the sooner that democratic space and civil rights are restored, the faster the healing process, the smoother the reconciliation process. That’s my heartfelt advice from a friend.
QUESTION: But personally how do you see the situation has changed from previous trips that you were here before the coup and right now? Do you feel that the atmosphere is moving toward reconciliation? What do you make of the situation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: In April when I came I urged dialogue among the parties. I still think that it’s important to have dialogue, but frankly the dialogue today that will do the most good is a dialogue among the people of Thailand; among the citizens and the voters, not only the adherents of one party or another. And not only between the party leaders, but a dialogue within the society to really come to terms with what it is that Thailand seeks to achieve in political stability.
QUESTION: In terms of timing, people must be wondering whether you come at this juncture is like to show support to former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra because just last week she was impeached on corruption charges on rice pledging scheme. What do you see the situation that people raise this concern that perhaps you are showing support to former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I came here to show support for the people and the Kingdom of Thailand, not for any political party or for any political actor. My trip was planned and confirmed, my meetings were arranged long before the decision on former Prime Minister Yingluck. The impeachment only occurred a few days ago. I’ve been on the road for almost a week, so it’s definitely mistaken to suggest that the impeachment is behind my visit here. It’s equally mistaken to suggest that the U.S. supports any political actor or any political party. We have a long, long history that offers abundant evidence of our commitment not to a party but to the people and to the Kingdom.
QUESTION: But what is your concern of the judicial process under this government toward former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The way that I would put it, taking a step back, is this: In a modern society like Thailand, it’s critically important that the people, the citizens, have faith in their judicial and political institutions. It’s important that people believe that the decisions that are taking place in those institutions are objective and are without political agendas. From an international point of view there are clearly questions raised in this action but the opinion that matters in the long run will be the opinion of the Thai people and the opinion of the Thai citizens. My hope is that there will be a process of inclusion. That doesn’t mean that it will favor the party of former Prime Minister Yingluck or for that matter Khun Abhisit, but an inclusive process that allows everyone to say “Even if I didn’t get my way, I got my chance to have my voice heard.”
QUESTION: But did you not see the issue that the former Prime Minister has to go through judicial process and being impeached that was because corruption charges or corruption actions which were inspected by National Commission on Corruption in Thailand, which has shown evidence.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: My purpose here today is not to critique the pros and cons of a particular decision, let alone the impeachment proceedings. It’s to make the broader point: As long as there is a major segment of Thai society that feels utterly excluded, that feels that the treatment that they and their representatives receive is unfair, whether that’s justified or not, there will be a division in Thai society and Thai politics. That is not a recipe for the kind of long-term stability that will help the Thai economy grow. That will help Thai students succeed. And that will allow the government to focus on the things that it should be focusing on. Right now the people in authority are concentrating on internal political challenges. The world is presenting Thailand and the United States with global challenges; with challenges from infectious diseases; from natural disasters and climate change; the challenge of economic competition and the IT revolution; the challenge of instability and tensions in the South China Sea and in the region; the challenge of making ASEAN into an effective and unified institution in the region. These are the things that we should be working on.
QUESTION: Let me carry on some questions on U.S.-Thailand relations before East Asia affairs. Is it the form of punishment on Thailand that the US hasn’t appointed a new Ambassador to Thailand since Ambassador Kenney left Thailand in November of last year or because the U.S. doesn’t have a top diplomat who has expertise on Thailand? What’s the situation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Both of those suggested answers are completely wrong. The United States is not in the business of punishing friends and allies, let alone Thailand. The United States has a deep bench of immensely qualified diplomats and it’s by no means unusual for there to be a gap between the departure of one Ambassador and the arrival of another. We will, as soon as the White House makes an announcement, be proud to send a distinguished man or woman to represent the United States in Thailand. We’re very proud not only of our former Ambassador but also of the current chargé and really outstanding team in Bangkok. In addition to their work, my visit here is to insure sure that we maintain good lines of communication.
QUESTION: And with Cobra Gold joint military exercise, after the U.S. has suspended military assistance for 4.7 million dollars but still Cobra Gold is still going on. What do you see is the form of closer cooperation as the military exercise was scaled down?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: As you point out, in the aftermath of the coup, we scaled down and refocused the Cobra Gold exercise. But let’s remember that not only have we conducted this exercise for over 30 years, it’s a multinational exercise that includes something on the order of 30 countries. It’s not only the U.S. and Thailand. Moreover, this year we are welcoming India’s participation for the first time. So what we think is appropriate in terms of our focus in Cobra Gold and certainly an important area for cooperation between our two militaries is humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Whether it is super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or the tragic typhoons and tsunami that Thailand and your neighbors have experienced, the fact of the matter is that global weather patterns are changing and creating huge strains and challenges in the region. Ensuring that we have the ability to move quickly together to coordinate in a crisis is exactly what the U.S., the Philippines, and our partners, should be doing and that’s what Cobra Gold seeks to exercise.
QUESTION: On the TIP report, trafficking in persons report, last year Thailand was downgraded to Tier III. What’s the situation this year? Do you think, because the government has to submit a revision report, what will be the possibility of a new revision of the U.S. on Thailand?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I’ve followed closely the statements by the government regarding trafficking. I think I’m hearing and seeing a political commitment to take this challenge, and it’s a global challenge, it’s something that threatens all of us and it’s a problem that we all have. I think I’m seeing a commitment to take this challenge seriously. But I’m also monitoring very closely the actual results, the actual facts on the ground. And there I have to say that I’m still looking for measurable progress. We both need to see progress in arrests; arrests of traffickers, not of trafficked individuals. I think it’s important to see more prosecutions. It’s important that action be taken against police or other officials who are not doing their duty or who are, in fact, abetting and aiding trafficking. Whether the issue is trafficking in industries like the seafood industry, which has very negative implications for an important economic sector in Thailand or whether it’s the horrific trafficking of women for sexual purposes, which is a terrible human rights violation and also undermines the empowerment and development of women within the Kingdom. Whatever kind of trafficking we’re looking at, the important thing is showing real results not just pledging to do a better job.
QUESTION: On East Asia affairs, you see growing military friction on China, South Korea, Japan. Do you think it’s…what’s the concern of the US on East China Sea?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: On the East China Sea? In November in Beijing during APEC, Prime Minister Abe of Japan and President Xi Jinping of China announced an agreement, a four point agreement, that represents a significant political step forward both in their relationship and their approach to the differences in the East China Sea. Now, it’s true that we haven’t seen a change for the better in terms of the behavior and the activity of Chinese vessels that are increasingly pushing into territory that has been, and is, administered by Japan. But at least there is a meaningful dialogue underway between Japan and China. And they have managed to reach an agreement as well as some practical steps on the military to military side. In the South China Sea, however, we see problematic behavior but there hasn’t been the conclusion of a binding code of conduct between China and ASEAN, even though they committed to do that twelve years ago. And they’ve been working very intensely over the last few years. Now, Thailand has a special role has a special role to play. Like the United States, Thailand is not a claimant country. Like the United States, Thailand has very close relations, of course, with the ASEAN claimants but also with China. But unlike the United States, Thailand is the country coordinator for China and in that respect it is our hope that Thai diplomacy and ASEAN unity will bring about agreement on the Chinese side, finally, to come to an agreement on a code of conduct.
QUESTION: And let me bring you to the last question. Do you see China’s power on sea control in this region as a threat to the U.S.? Growing capability of China of sea control?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: There are two ways of looking at this issue. One is simply as a matter of maritime power. The United States has by far the most capable military and the most capable navy in the entire world. And we have close security cooperation with our allies. And now our partners. The right way to look at the issue is one of universal principles and international law. There is no reason why it should matter how big one navy is versus another country’s navy. That should not be the issue. The issue should be this – the Asia-Pacific region is the economic driver of global growth. What has made this region prosperous has been stability and adherence to the rule of law. The principle that it isn’t big versus small, it’s all of us playing by the same rules. The recipe for stability and increased growth in the Asia-Pacific region is for each country to respect international law; to respect the rights of their neighbors, and to accept the principle of self-restraint.
QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel, thank you very much for joining me. (Thai) Khap khan ka.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: It’s my pleasure and thank you very much Khun Natcha.
And these are the reflections of U.S. senior diplomat Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel during his visit to Thailand eight months after the coup on the stance of the U.S. government towards the situation in Thailand and the Asia-Pacific region. That’s all Tob Jote for tonight. Sawaddee ka.