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2014-05-22

After Latest Coup in Thailand, Will U.S. Rethink Military Ties to Longtime Asian Ally?

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John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

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Thailand’s military has taken control of the country’s government days after imposing martial law. The head of the Thai army says the coup is necessary to restore order after six months of political turmoil between the government and opposition protesters. Protesters in Bangkok had blocked elections and called for the ouster of a caretaker government installed after the court removed Thailand’s prime minister earlier this month. Thailand’s army chief made the coup announcement in a television address shortly after convening a meeting with political parties, lawmakers and other key figures. This marks Thailand’s first coup since 2006, which led to more than a year of military rule. We are joined by John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Thailand’s military has taken control of the country’s government days after imposing martial law. The head of the Thai army says the coup is necessary to restore order after six months of political turmoil between the government and opposition protesters. Protesters in Bangkok had blocked elections and called for the ouster of a caretaker government installed after the court removed Thailand’s prime minister earlier this month. Thailand’s army chief made the coup announcement in a television address shortly after convening a meeting with political parties, lawmakers and other key figures.

GEN. PRAYUTH CHAN-OCHA: [translated] To reform the social structure economically, socially and in other ways, to create equality for everybody and for every side, the peace-maintaining committee, which consisted of army, army forces, navy and air forces, as well as the national police, has to take control of power to administrate the country from May 22, 2014, from the time of 1630 hours onwards.

AMY GOODMAN: This marks Thailand’s first coup since 2006, which led to more than a year of military rule.

For more on Thailand, we go to John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C.

Thanks, John, for coming on. Can you talk about the coup in Thailand and the significance of this?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, it has a lot of significance. As many people know, this is not the first time there’s been a coup in Thailand in the last couple of years. What’s really going on here, which is different from all the other times, is that this time we have an issue of royal succession. The king of Thailand is quite elderly and, like everybody, is not immortal. And part of this is a response by the military to get rid of what they see as the Red Shirt menace, the Thaksin menace. Thaksin Shinawatra, the former leader of the Red Shirts, former leader of Thailand, who is now in exile, is a person the military doesn’t like, and they want to rid Thailand of his menace forever. And this coup is part of that effort. It’s a very complicated political situation, but it is different from previous occasions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why have there been such a string of military coups in Thailand in modern times?

JOHN SIFTON: The military is not—it would be a mistake to think that this military is like your typical kleptocratic, banana republic military. This military is patriotic in their own way. It’s just they have no allegiance to democratic principles. They have allegiance to the crown. And they’ve stepped in many times when political infighting or political opposition has displeased the palace. And in this case, in some respects, it’s no different.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the U.S. relationship with the Thai military, John?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, one of the biggest things we’ve been saying is that this ought to be a lesson to the U.S. military, to the U.S. administration, to the U.S. government at large, that all this effort to promote democratic ideals and human rights through military engagement has been for naught. That’s not because engagement doesn’t work, but because the engagement that’s been used hasn’t worked. Year after year, decade after decade, the U.S. military has trained the Thai military, engaged with it, and somehow hoped that its values would be imbued by osmosis to the Thai military. It hasn’t happened. So I think it’s time to rethink military assistance—and not just here, but, you know, across the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is the importance to the United States of Thailand in Southeast Asia?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, Thailand is, you know, one of the United States’s oldest allies in the region. I mean, it goes back to the 19th century. It was very important during the Vietnam War, and it remains a very important political and military ally. The Foreign Assistance Act will mandate a cutoff of military assistance to Thailand for the duration of this coup, as long as there’s a nondemocratically elected government. But presumably, the embassy will continue running, and they will continually negotiate. The United States and the EU and Japan, they have to tell the Thai military, the leadership now, that nothing is going to move forward—trade, investment, nothing—until democracy is restored. And hopefully that will lead to a resolution quickly, but I think it’s going to be some time.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who the Red Shirts are? For an audience in the United States, and I assume other parts of the world, who know very little about Thailand, give us—

JOHN SIFTON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —the political, geographic landscape.

JOHN SIFTON: It’s so complicated, but in a nutshell, a few years ago, about 15 years ago, 14 years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra was elected into the prime minister role. He’s a Red Shirt. He’s a very wealthy businessman. And he instituted a series of reforms. He had the backing of large swaths of the rural population. He was a little bit unpopular with the elites in the urban setting of Bangkok. He was re-elected. He was ultimately thrown out by the military in 2006. And so, he’s been in exile for many years since. And his sister was elected a few years back, so the Red Shirts came into power, but without him. They then were thrown from power last—well, over a constitutional case that ultimately took the Red Shirts out of power, they were then thrown from power. But a caretaker government came in, which still had some Red Shirt members.

Throughout all of this, the Yellow Shirts, which support the monarchy and hate Thaksin, have been trying to sort of overthrow the Red Shirt menace. They succeeded for a brief period a couple years ago, but then they were swept from power. And now, apparently upset with their inability to use democracy, they have, you know, basically turned to the military for help. And they have succeeded. So, they’re very—they’re monarchists. They don’t really support democracy, mainly because it hasn’t worked for them. And I have to imagine that many Yellow Shirts are now happy with what’s happened, because they think that the palace will now appoint a nondemocratically—a government that supports the Yellow Shirt cause, you know, that supports getting rid of Red Shirts altogether. Politically, though, they’re not very far from each other. You know, what’s ironic about this all is that it’s not as though it’s some huge ideological divide.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And are there other progressive, more populist forces that are being—not being heard from in this struggle?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, there’s a lot of nonpartisan people. There’s a lot of people who just support democracy in the abstract. We have reported on Red Shirt abuses when the Red Shirts were in power. We reported on Yellow Shirt abuses when the Yellow Shirts were in power. And the bottom line is, constitutional democracy is better than military dictatorship. And we obviously would like to see a return to the legal order, regardless of who’s in power. And there are a lot of people in Thailand who feel the same way.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton, we want to thank you for being with us, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, talking about the military coup that’s just taken place in Thailand.

And that does it for our show. I’ll be speaking today at Columbia University, covering Egypt media and politics in the post-Mubarak period at Schermerhorn Hall, Room 501; then on May 31st at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., 2:00 speech at the Green Fest. Check out democracynow.org.

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