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The Military Coup in Thailand Is Putting the U.S. in an Awkward Position

Photo: Getty Images/Ed Wray

In 1961, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act, Section 508 of which states that the U.S. must cut aid to countries in which a “duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup” until the resumption of civilian rule.

On Thursday, in Thailand, a duly elected head of government was deposed by military coup. Two days after instituting martial law, General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared that the military was taking over the government and suspending the Constitution.

That means the U.S. must cut aid to Thailand, right? Not necessarily. In a statement later Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry said:

“I am disappointed by the decision of the Thai military to suspend the constitution and take control of the government after a long period of political turmoil, and there is no justification for this military coup…. I urge the restoration of civilian government immediately, a return to democracy, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as press freedoms. The path forward for Thailand must include early elections that reflect the will of the people.

"While we value our long friendship with the Thai people, this act will have negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military. We are reviewing our military and other assistance and engagements, consistent with U.S. law."

Although Kerry stopped short of declaring sanctions, the fact that he used the word coup has significant implications for the U.S. response. Last year, President Barack Obama initially avoided cutting aid to Egypt, another important military ally, by refusing to call the military overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president, a coup. “The law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at the time. The U.S. later cut military aid to the country.

Of course, it would have been hard for the U.S. not to call the overthrow in Thailand a coup, given that General Prayuth announced as much in his televised statement. The U.S. will almost certainly suspend some of its military and economic aid to Thailand, but there are ways for the U.S to abide by its legal obligations without abandoning Thailand or losing influence with the military.

“The U.S. is probably compelled by the law to suspend some aid, and yes we need to abide by the law,” said Ernest Z. Bower of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “But what’s really important is strong private diplomacy.”

America's friendship with Thailand is long indeed. The country is America’s oldest treaty partner in Asia, with military alliances dating back to the Korean and Vietnam wars. Today, the U.S. uses the Thai Navy’s U-Tapao airbase to transport soldiers and supplies in and out of Afghanistan. Though unconfirmed by the CIA, Thailand reportedly hosted one of the agency’s black sites where Al Qaeda terror suspects were interrogated.

This friendship took a hit not long ago: In response to the last military coup there, in 2006, the U.S. cut off its development assistance and military financing and training programs for the duration of the military's rule, which lasted a year and a half. But the U.S. maintained funding for law enforcement, counterterrorism and nonproliferation efforts, global health programs, and the Peace Corps. The U.S. also allowed Thailand to keep its status as a major non-NATO ally and decided to continue with Cobra Gold, the yearly bilateral military exercise held in Thailand.

“The U.S. response in 2006 was not adequate,” said Joshua Kurlantzick a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said that in addition to cutting aid, the U.S. should suspend Cobra Gold and more explicitly condemn the Thai military.

However, leaked diplomatic cables indicate that the U.S. was weary of losing influence in Thailand to China. Two weeks after the 2006 coup, Chinese Senior Colonel Li Mingliang told a U.S. defense attaché "that his office looks at U.S. military sanctions as an opportunity to expand influence. Li confidently expressed hope that his approach of telling the Thai that 'China is your neighbor, we will be here long-term, we will not interfere in your internal affairs,' will give him a leg up on his American counterparts," according to a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

Sino-Thailand ties have been historically strong, and a recent Congressional research report said that the rollback of U.S. military programs in 2006 allowed China to increase its influence in Thailand’s defense establishment.

The latest coup was Thailand’s twelfth since its independence in 1932. Some experts point to this frequency as evidence that the military hasn’t learned its lesson and that the U.S. needs a stronger response. But Frank Jannuzi, a former State Department analyst and current president and CEO of the Mansfield Foundation, says foreign policy doesn’t often have clear-cut answers and requires flexibility. “The best way to boost the confidence of the Thai people in the U.S. is to support democratic governance without ignoring developments that go counter to that. But the U.S. needs to be a constant partner, not one that walks away when things are troubled,” he said.

Bower said Thailand is starting to view the U.S. as a fair-weathered friend: “The State Department overestimated the depth of the U.S. relationship with Thailand. It has atrophied since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, when they felt we left them out to dry.”

According to Jannuzi, the military has a relatively positive reputation among the people and has intentionally distanced itself from political allegiances to either the recently ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra or her opposition, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. After more than six months of violent protests, and the current leadership void, General Prayuth’s claim that the military was forced to intervene to maintain stability is plausible.

Just before the coup, Bower had recommended that the State Department create a Thailand contact group in which American foreign policy heavyweights would be paired up with representatives from all sides of the conflict in Thailand to discuss a political solution. He doesn’t think the coup eliminates this option, but more negative rhetoric from the U.S. might.

That the U.S. is now legally bound to do something that would be contrary to its interests—and not necessarily beneficial to the Thai people—raises doubts about the utility of Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act.

“Laws that don’t have escape clauses, like national interest waivers or national security waivers, almost never work,” said a former State Department official. “All that happens is that the government will either deny the obvious—say it’s not a coup—or if the government allows itself to be bound by it, it is deprived of the necessary flexibility in coping with each unique circumstance."

In the early 1990s, Senator Patrick Leahy began a push for legislation that would prohibit the U.S. from funding countries that commit human rights abuses. The Leahy Amendments were formally incorporated into the Foreign Assistance Act in 2008. When asked about circumstantial exceptions, Leahy spokesman David Carle said, “The law doesn’t allow for exceptions. The law says that in the event of a coup, aid to the government ends until democratic civilian government is restored.”

Jannuzi predicts that Kerry and Obama will err on the side of diplomatic flexibility, so that the administration can assess the motivations of the Thai military. 

“One of the things that Washington will be looking for is concrete steps by the military to restore democratic rule. I get the feeling that that is the intention, because the Thai military has learned from experience that running a country is not fun,” he said.