- - Monday, April 16, 2018

BANGKOK — Thailand’s Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon will travel to Washington next week for talks with Defense Secretary James Mattis, a visit seen here as boosting the military-installed government despite questions over its record on human rights, democracy and Mr. Prawit’s own brush with corruption charges.

Uncertainty continues to swirl over whether the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief, will honor pledges to hold national elections by February 2019, amid signs Mr. Prayuth is consolidating his own power. Despite the questions, though, the Trump administration has re-established links to the longtime U.S. ally that had cooled under President Obama.

Mr. Prawit’s visit is seen as yet another confirmation of the shift in attitudes in Washington.

“The U.S. needs to counter China’s increasing rise in interests and influence in Thailand, and in Southeast Asia by extension, and deepening already deep military-to-military relations is one way to do that,” Benjamin Zawacki, the Bangkok-based author of a new book on Thailand’s place in the Sino-U.S. rivalry, said in an interview.

“Thailand’s government is — as all Thai governments have been since the turn of the century — pro-Beijing. And until Trump came to power, it was anti-Washington as well,” said Mr. Zawacki.

Thailand publicly says it wants good relations with all nations, and is not leaning toward China.

Mr. Prawit’s meeting with Mr. Mattis and other Pentagon officials “affirms both sides’ commitment to the longstanding [non-NATO] alliance, and our shared interest in advancing prosperity and security in the Asia-Pacific region,” a U.S. Embassy official said.

Mr. Mattis, a onetime Marine general, led a U.S. delegation to Bangkok in October as President Trump’s special envoy to attend the cremation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

After Mr. Trump became president, the State Department and its diplomats muted their initial criticism of Mr. Prayuth’s 2014 coup and current military government, which had caused rifts between the two countries.

In contrast, the Pentagon stepped up its relations with Thailand’s politically powerful U.S.-trained army.

“In 2017 alone, $261 million worth of military deals are in the works,” U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies said in July.

The U.S. sent more than 6,000 troops to the 37th annual multinational Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand during February, a much larger contingent after the Obama administration had scaled back the U.S. role.

Complicating the visit will be Mr. Prawit’s own well-publicized ethical woes. He is under investigation by the regime’s National Anti-Corruption Commission after 22 luxury wristwatches were discovered in his possession, a collection valued at more than $1 million. Mr. Prawit, who is also deputy prime minister, insists the watches are not evidence of corruption because they were loaned to him by a now-dead wealthy friend.

But newspapers had a field day with photos of the minister’s watches at public events, and thousands of Thais signed several online petitions demanding Mr. Prawit resign over the scandal.

“If the people do not want me, I will leave,” Mr. Prawit said in February, but he did not quit.

Mr. Prayuth, who was given an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump and first lady Melania Trump on a Washington visit in October, has been increasingly confident of his hold on power. When U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford visited Bangkok in February, Mr. Prayuth revealed, “I told him, the U.S. president has his ‘America First.’ I also have a ‘Thailand First’ as an approach to take care of the country’s interests.”

The election’s “timing will be determined by me and legal procedures,” Mr. Prayuth said he told Gen. Dunford.

Mr. Prayuth is under fire for repeatedly postponing nationwide elections which, even if held, would limit politicians to a future 750-member parliament that would include a 250-seat Senate appointed by the government.

Mr. Prayuth also pushed through a new constitution which allows a hung parliament to appoint an unelected person to be prime minister, prompting widespread suspicions that he wants to extend his rule.

An alternative would be for Mr. Prayuth to join a political party and run as that party’s elected candidate in polls scheduled for February.

“I have not made a decision whether to accept any of the parties’ invitations yet,” Mr. Prayuth said last week.

His junta is also cracking down on a small upsurge in anti-junta protests.

After a handful of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University students raised a banner labeling him “the dictator” during his recent campus appearance, the military went to their homes and questioned their parents about their children.

The regime did not intimidate the parents, according to government spokesman Lt. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd.

“It was a normal job. They did not carry weapons or drive a tank to their homes,” the general said.

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