- - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

BANGKOK — Human rights activists, opposition party leaders and scholars are sharply criticizing President Obama’s decision to include Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the junta that seized power two years ago, in next week’s summit for Southeast Asian leaders in California, warning that the former army general will display the invitation as Washington’s endorsement of the military regime.

The U.S. has been loath to cut ties with Bangkok despite the coup, seeing Thailand as a key non-NATO ally in a region where China has made major economic and diplomatic inroads in recent years.

After a brief suspension of some programs and aid after the 2014 coup, the Pentagon will be taking part in this year’s 35th “Cobra Gold” military exercises with Thailand, a 10-day, 24-country gathering starting Feb. 9 that is one of the largest annual military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region.

While that exercise is proceeding, all 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — which includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — will gather at Mr. Obama’s invitation for the Feb. 15-16 U.S.-ASEAN Summit at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California.

“The regime is starved for international recognition, and this invitation might be perceived by both the government’s supporters and opponents as one more step toward greater international acceptance,” said David Streckfuss, a respected commentator and historian of Thai politics.

John Sifton, Asia policy director of Washington-based Human Rights Watch, said his group was rebuffed when it pressed the Obama administration to rescind the invitations for Prime Minister Prayuth and longtime Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who the group said has held on to power for 30 years by repressing political dissent.

The White House “responded by citing the principle of ASEAN unity, arguing that if they disinvited any of the leaders, the rest would not come,” Mr. Sifton said in an email interview this week.

If the Thai leader does attend the summit, Mr. Sifton said, the U.S. government should at least speak out ahead of time on the government’s record of politically motivated prosecutions and abuse of military courts “to create pressure on Prayuth to ease up on his crackdown.”

“Pro-democracy Thais should be asking the White House how this invitation will be used to advance the cause of democracy in Thailand,” Mr. Sifton said.

Mr. Streckfuss was just as blunt, saying the May 2014 coup brought an abrupt end to one of the region’s liveliest, if at times chaotic, democracies.

“To invite personally the leader who brought it all to an end is like a kick in the face,” Mr. Streckfuss, an American who has been based in Thailand for more than 25 years, said in an email message. “I would expect, if not some strong objections by pro-democracy Thais, then at least widespread disappointment.”

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Marxist activist and author self-exiled in England to avoid arrest for speaking against the authorities, said Mr. Prayuth’s inclusion in the ASEAN summit will be a propaganda coup for the prime minister and the National Council for Peace and Order, the group of military leaders that still controls the government.

“The junta and its supporters will jump at the chance to claim that the international community accepts the regime, and the Thai media will delight in showing clips of Prayuth arrogantly strutting around the meeting,” Mr. Giles said.

The Cobra Gold exercise and the ASEAN summit come close on the heels of the unveiling here of a new draft constitution by the Prayuth government. The draft has come in for heavy criticism from the country’s political parties, but Mr. Prayuth insists that a long-delayed general election will be held next year even if the proposed constitution is not approved by voters in a July referendum.

“Whatever happens, an election will take place in 2017,” Mr. Prayuth told reporters last week. “I will search for any constitution for us to have an election.”

U.S. reaction

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies said in a brief interview last week that he did not expect strong objections by pro-democracy Thais to President Obama’s decision to include Mr. Prayuth in the ASEAN summit, adding the invitation did not signal a shift away from U.S. criticism of the coup and the junta’s regime.

Ambassador Davies made the remarks during a brief informal interview inside the ornate Grand Palace while attending a black-tie royal function alongside other diplomats and officials, hosted by one of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

The guests included Mr. Prayuth and Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon, plus former Gen. Surayud Chulanont, who led a previous 2006 coup, in which Mr. Prayuth also participated.

The U.S.-ASEAN Summit comes amid rising regional concerns over indigenous Islamist guerrillas in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand and their possible links with the Syria-based Islamic State.

China’s expanding presence in the contested South China Sea, international economic trade issues and ASEAN’s integration as a potential political and economic bloc are also expected to be addressed at the summit.

“This unprecedented gathering [is] the first hosted by the United States with the ASEAN leaders,” the White House said on Dec. 30.

In addition to the annual Cobra Gold exercises, the Pentagon’s 7th Fleet uses Thailand’s facilities near Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand and on Phuket island along the Andaman Sea. The USS Fort Worth arrived in Phuket on Dec. 30 after patrolling the South China Sea near the contested Spratly Islands claimed by Beijing.

Washington suspended about $5 million in military and other aid immediately after the coup, and the State Department regularly presses for democratic reforms in Bangkok.

“We remain concerned by continued limitations on human rights and fundamental freedoms in Thailand, including undue restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark C. Toner said last month.

Then-Gen. Prayuth’s coup toppled the government of popularly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and some of Mr. Yingluck’s political opponents say it was right for the U.S. to include Mr. Prayuth in the summit.

“I support [the invitation], obviously, because it is always useful for engaging, no matter what type of regime,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, a former senator and former Democrat Party deputy leader.

“I don’t think Obama supports Prayuth,” Mr. Kraisak added, but regional tensions require that bilateral U.S.-Thai relations be maintained.

Mr. Prayuth said the military was forced to intervene in this Buddhist-majority country of 67 million people to tackle rampant corruption and paralyzing infighting among the country’s elected representatives.

But his junta has been accused of putting dissidents on trial in Bangkok’s Military Court instead of civilian courts, and of jailing or exiling opposition leaders.

More than 1,400 civilians were put on trial in the Military Court during 2015, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Opponents, mostly students, have been detained for defying the regime by displaying the three-finger salute popularized by “The Hunger Games” Hollywood film series, reading George Orwell’s “1984” novel in public, eating sandwiches outdoors and other imaginative, coded protests.

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