Bangkok’s take-away from the US


Thai­land should be grate­ful to the U.S. re­gard­ing the latest Traf­fick­ing in Per­sons Re­port (TIP) be­cause it helps to ex­pose what is re­ally in­side the hearts and minds of Washington’s pol­icy-mak­ers and how the world’s most pow­er­ful coun­try views oth­ers and the re­gion’s old­est ally.

From now on Thai­land has to be re­al­is­tic and forth­right when it comes to as­sess­ing its re­la­tions with the U.S. They have al­ready for­got­ten the U.S. re­sponse when Thai­land faced the eco­nomic cri­sis in July 1997. Ap­par­ently, the 183-year-old ties and other Thai “ex­pe­di­ent” ef­forts which the U.S. se­nior of­fi­cials of­ten al­luded to and seem highly ap­pre­cia­tive of have no bear­ing as they do not serve “im­me­di­ate and core U.S. in­ter­ests” at this junc­ture.

In­deed, Thai­land should be solely blamed as it does not a com­pre­hen­sive strat­egy to en­gage with the U.S. and the in­abil­ity to forecast the U.S.’ be­hav­ior. The prob­lem is, Thai­land and the U.S. used to have com­mon en­e­mies but they have never been en­e­mies. They were friends and on the same side — with the ex­cep­tion of vot­ing at the United Na­tions with lit­tle less than 20 per­cent of sim­i­lar votes.

The two coun­tries have never fought war — un­like Viet­nam, Malaysia and Myan­mar, which know ex­actly how to rub shoul­ders with the Amer­i­cans and ex­tract con­ces­sions. They were en­e­mies be­fore and now they are friends so they do not take each other for granted.

Look at all these ex­hibits, how the U.S. has mor­phed over the decades. Just re­cently, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barrack Obama hosted Viet­nam’s Com­mu­nist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong. It was an amaz­ing diplo­matic feat given their past com­mon his­to­ries. Viet­nam de­cided to join the Trans Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP), know­ing full well it would be a tough call. Since it was a po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion, it would be in­ter­est­ing to fol­low what Hanoi would be will­ing to yield un­der the TPP and the ASEAN-led frame­work known as the Re­gional Eco­nomic Com­pre­hen­sive Frame­work (RCEP), which is sched­uled to be com­pleted by the end of this year.

Malaysia Up­graded to Tier 2

So was Malaysia — its de­ci­sion to join the TPP ne­go­ti­a­tion was very wise one ex­cept for Kuala Lumpur’s lack of con­fi­dence that it would be able to carry out the process to the very end due to do­mes­tic con­straints. Last week, Washington du­ti­fully came to the res­cue to en­sure that Malaysia got the up­grade to Tier 2—Watch List to be el­i­gi­ble as a TPP sig­na­tory if the ne­go­ti­a­tions fin­ish soon.

Be­fore it as­sumes the ASEAN chair­man­ship this year, Kuala Lumpur also went for the non-per­ma­nent seat on the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, which it serves as pres­i­dent next year. Malaysia also knows that the TPP ne­go­ti­a­tion would aug­ment its bar­gain power as the U.S. wants more Asian friends to do the free-trade frame­works.

In the case of Myan­mar, the gov­ern­ment also knows how to give in and stand firm against the U.S. and the best tim­ing to do so. Just ex­am­ine Nayphi­daw’s pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude to­ward the re­form since 2011: it has been sys­tem­at­i­cally plot­ted and ex­e­cuted. That was the path­way the Myan­mar’s lead­ers wanted to fol­low from the be­gin­ning. So, the coun­try is still on the Tier 2 Watch list even though it did not im­prove much on the TIP cri­te­ria, not to men­tion all the con­tro­ver­sies as­so­ci­ated with the Ro­hinya. Myan­mar knows that the cur­rent U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion’s legacy in Asia rests on re­la­tions with Myan­mar. So, Washington can­not slaugh­ter its golden goose.

In the case of Thai­land, Thai pol­icy mak­ers just wa­vered with­out any di­rec­tion. Lit­er­ally, just a few hours be­fore the planned visit of U.S. Pres­i­dent Barrack Obama to Thai­land for a brief stop on Nov. 18, 2012, Thai­land de­cided to en­ter into ne­go­ti­a­tion for the TPP. At the time, Thai­land was only in­ter­ested in do­ing the Trade and In­vest­ment Frame­work Agree­ment. But the Amer­i­cans chose to play along. Af­ter Obama left town, the Thais re­turned to their mai-pen­rai (never mind) mode — pulled back from the process. Bangkok wanted to make sure that Obama vis­ited Bangkok by ap­pear­ing en­thu­si­as­tic about the TPP.

Un­der the for­mer Thai leader, Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra, who had a good rap­port with for­mer U.S. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, both sides agreed to start a fast-track ne­go­ti­a­tion on free trade. Thai­land helped to ar­rest Ham­bali, the al-Qaida leader in Asia in Au­gust 2003. Two months later, the two lead­ers agreed that the free trade ne­go­ti­a­tion would be­gin June 2004. Af­ter nearly two years of ne­go­ti­a­tion, it was called off.

‘US cred­itabil­ity is harmed’

Fast for­ward to the present: never be­fore has the TIP re­port pro­duced such a black hole for the U.S. for­eign pol­icy and its ties with friends. Even con­gress­man Chris Smith, the fa­ther of the law that gave birth to the TIP re­ports, was not im­pressed.

Last week, he spoke in front of the U.S. sec­re­tary of state, John Kerry, dur­ing an Iran hear­ing: “China con­victed 35 traf­fick­ers, Malaysia three, and Thai­land 157— but only Thai­land is Tier 3. What mes­sage does that send? When we en­gage in traf­fick­ing crony­ism — giv­ing a free pass to new friends and part­ners for rea­sons un­re­lated to the suf­fer­ing of traf­fick­ing vic­tims – U.S. cred­itabil­ity is harmed, U.S. lead­er­ship is un­der­mined, and he traf­fick­ing vic­tims are left help­less and alone.”

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