- - Monday, February 9, 2015

BANGKOK, Thailand — U.S. forces on Monday went ahead with the massive annual, multinational Cobra Gold military exercises here, despite concerns over whether to help train the troops that enabled Thai Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to seize power in a coup more than eight months ago and impose martial law.

In a sign of disapproval, the Obama administration scaled down Cobra Gold, its biggest military exercise in the Asia-Pacific, sending about 3,600 U.S. troops instead of last year’s 4,300 to participate, and de-emphasizing the military aspect of the agenda.

“The large-scale, live-fire exercise associated w/ amphibious landing was cancelled,” American Embassy charge d’affaires W. Patrick Murphy tweeted on Tuesday.

But other lethal exercises will be included, and Thailand’s apparent value as a strategic asset in the region overrode concerns about the new regime’s human rights record and commitment to political liberties. Thailand is a key non-NATO ally of the U.S. in Southeast Asia.

A “noncombatant evacuation” from Thailand’s tourist-packed Pattaya beach near Bangkok is also scheduled, plus a “field training exercise” involving troops in various formations.

Gen. Prayuth staged a bloodless coup on May 22, toppling the popularly elected prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, citing the country’s rampant corruption problems as a justification for the move.

In response, Washington suspended a symbolic $4.7 million in security aid to Bangkok and other training, but the two countries have emphasized the need to maintain close relations.

Despite those concerns — and fresh anti-coup protests by students in Bangkok during the weekend — the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) will be training Thailand’s military from Monday through Feb. 20.

“We can’t deny that this period is a challenging one, and has necessitated a modified Cobra Gold, as Thailand manages its return to democracy,” Mr. Murphy, the U.S. Embassy charge d’affaires, told the opening ceremony in Nakhon Nayok on Monday.

Asked last week about why the joint exercises were proceeding despite the coup, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington that Thailand remains “a valued friend and ally.”

“We will continue cooperation on issues that matter to the security and well-being of our country and theirs as well,” Ms. Harf said.

Cobra Gold began in 1982 as bilateral training between Washington and Bangkok.

It has since expanded, and this year’s 24 nations — including South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, plus other mostly Pacific countries — will be taking part. For the first time, China will join in Cobra Gold’s noncombat training events designed to prepare for humanitarian assistance missions.

But in Bangkok, the mood is not upbeat.

“The most joyless, soulless war games in history,” the Bangkok Post said on Sunday, describing the mood on both sides.

During the past two weeks, Gen. Prayuth and his regime expressed displeasure at the State Department and U.S. Embassy here for their repeated criticism of his regime and for the failure to schedule new elections.

Some Thai and foreign analysts said Washington may be worried about Bangkok moving too close to Beijing, and thus did not cancel Cobra Gold because the move would severely disrupt U.S.-Thai relations. Cobra Gold 2015 coincides with China’s offer to Thailand to hold their own bilateral war games.

“We agreed to increase joint military exercises between Thailand’s air force and China’s air force, and to increase overall military cooperation over the next three to five years,” Thai Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters after Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan ended a two-day visit to Bangkok.

The two countries also agreed on Friday to share more intelligence information and jointly tackle cross-border crime and drug syndicates.

“China will not intervene in Thailand’s politics but will give political support and help maintain relationships at all levels. This is China’s policy,” Gen. Prawit said.

On Saturday Bangkok witnessed the biggest pro-democracy protest in months.

During a scheduled parade, students at prestigious Thammasat University smuggled subversive floats into the National Stadium and, just before a soccer game, suddenly displayed an image of Gen. Prayuth announcing his edicts on a faux TV among infantile “Teletubby” characters.

In the stadium’s bleachers, an unfurled banner said, “Coup = Corruption.”

Other banners declared “Down with Dictatorship” and “Long Live Democracy” before surprised police grabbed the protesters and took down the banners.

The controversy over Cobra Gold is unlikely to go away, with the military regime now saying that democratic elections may not be held until 2016 or later.

“It remains to be seen how Washington will handle Cobra Gold 2016 if the junta is still in power and little progress is made towards restoring democracy,” wrote Washington-based analyst Prashanth Parameswaran last week in thediplomat.com.

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