BANGKOK – General Prayuth Chan-ocha appears at ease among the lavish trappings of politics. Thailand’s Prime Minister is never far from doting courtiers in Bangkok’s 1920s Government House, a neo-Gothic building stippled with classical paintings and one particularly plump jade Buddha.
Sitting in a position of complete power, he says, it’s only out of a sense of duty “When people are in trouble, we, the soldiers, are there for them,” he tells Time Magazine.
The question for Thailand is how long they will be there. Four years have passed since Prayuth, 64, seized power in a coup d’état. It was the 12th successful coup since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932, and Prayuth promised to quickly shepherd the Southeast Asian nation of 69 million back to democracy.
But the Thai people are still waiting to vote on their futures. Many here and in the region fear that under Prayuth’s watch, America’s oldest ally in Asia is undergoing a permanent authoritarian regression.
A pattern that has been replicated throughout southeast Asia as China’s influence swells and President Trump focuses on his “America first” promise.
According to Time Magazine (now owned by the Koch brothers), the U.S. (Trump) seems less committed than ever to smaller regional allies like Thailand in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
Although Trump welcomed Prayuth to the White House in October, the Thai leader says Washington now seems “somewhat busy with its own issues. There seems to be some distance between the U.S. and ASEAN.”
In terms of regional rivalry, there’s no competition. “The friendship between Thailand and China has existed over thousands of years, and with the U.S. for around 200 years,” Prayuth says. “China is the No. 1 partner of Thailand.”
Historically, Thailand was something of an exception to the rule when it came to U.S. relations. The much-beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, was born in Cambridge, Mass. In the 1950s and ’60s, the country was a bulwark against the communist fervor sweeping Southeast Asia, and during the Vietnam War, Bangkok was a vital staging post for U.S. troops. In 1969, President Nixon paid tribute to the U.S.’s “deep spiritual and ideological ties” with Thailand.
The U.S. has since lost top trading-partner status to China. After Prayuth’s coup, Washington suspended all nonessential official visits and one-third of U.S. aid to Thailand, condemning the intervention as having “no justification.” China stayed silent.
Since then, military cooperation between Beijing and Bangkok has ramped up. Thailand has purchased 49 Chinese tanks and 34 armored vehicles worth over $320 million, plus three submarines at more than $1 billion. There are plans for a joint Sino-Thai commercial arms factory in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen. Beijing’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative–a trade and infrastructure network tracing the ancient Silk Road–stands to further boost its regional clout.
As a result, liberal democracy is increasingly no longer seen as the fastest route to prosperity. In Beijing, President Xi Jinping has ramped up censorship, purged opponents and removed presidential term limits, effectively letting him rule for life.
That model looks appealing, especially when set against the chaos gripping Washington. “People see successes in authoritarian countries and so grow impatient with the messy democratic process,” says former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Prayuth, meanwhile, insists that his dictatorship is reluctant and temporary. “I never imagined becoming Prime Minister in this way,” he says. “It was the hardest decision of my life.” Read full story click here