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Asean & Global Updates
POSTED | 10:12 AM | 28-01-2015

US: Thailand must move towards stable democracy

The following is a full statement by Daniel R. Russel, US Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand on January 26, 2015:-

I first visited Thailand many years ago in the early 90’s as a junior officer; stayed for at least a week or so at the home of a Foreign Service friend who was serving here, and like all Americans -- like all visitors to Thailand -- I fell in love. The warmth and the hospitality of the Thai people made a huge impression on me. I experience it every time I come back.

I also had the great honor while working at the White House at the National Security Council to accompany President Obama when he came to Thailand in 2012 in November. And the extraordinary experience of visiting Wat Po, the honor of being received by His Majesty the King, similarly made a profound impression on the President and has stayed with him.

So, I come here as a friend. I’m in the middle of a trip through Southeast Asia. I also have stopped already in the Philippines and Malaysia. When I leave here, I’m on my way to Cambodia. Now I didn’t bring the President of the United States with me this time, but I am here for the same reason that President Obama came to Asia twice last year and has come on an annual basis prior to that.

I came here for the same reason that so many students and business people are flocking to the Asia-Pacific and the reason that our merchant ships and our navy ships, frankly, call on ports here. It’s because the United States is also a Pacific nation. We are a resident Pacific power, and our prosperity and our security is closely linked -- inextricably linked -- with that of Asia. Our communities are connected by trade and travel and family ties.

And our fates are closely linked by the many global challenges that face us from climate change to pandemic diseases to violent extremism. One thing that I have learned is that no nation, however strong, can solve these problems alone. So first I’ll talk about the regional system -- the regional architecture -- that the United States and our allies and partners, including Thailand, have worked on and built to meet them. And then I’ll spend some time talking about US-Thai relations and what we see as the pathway forward.

For many decades -- 2015 is in fact the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War and the creation of the United Nations -- the US has worked with Pacific and Asian allies. We’ve worked with partners like the ASEAN members to advance security, prosperity, and democracy through the region. And together, we’ve built an architecture, a system of regional rules and institutions that aim at strengthening the rule of law.

This architecture, this system, has helped to keep the peace in the region, and many many nations have taken advantage of the space provided by this peace and stability to develop both politically and economically. We see this in the many vibrant democracies that have risen over the decades in places as diverse and as different as Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan.

Looking closer to this neighborhood -- while significant challenges remain in Myanmar – we’ve seen a historic opening up of that country after decades of isolation. And next door in Cambodia, the agreement between the government and the opposition party last year has now created some real opportunities for reform and for strengthening democracy. And in all of these places, democratic progress and economic progress have gone hand in hand. And we’ve often seen success in one country inspire progress by a neighbor.

The Obama administration has supported this region’s progress in many ways, such as increasing our direct engagement with ASEAN, which we see as a pillar of the international order. (The President) decided to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. He appointed our first – and now our second -- US Ambassador to ASEAN. And he, year after year, has personally and actively participated in the East Asia Summit.

The US strongly supports building up that summit -- the EAS -- as the premier forum for allowing leaders to address regional political and security issues, and that includes challenges like the disputes in the South China Sea. And we also strongly support the ASEAN Economic Community that is set to launch at the end of this year as well.

We support, have hosted, and actively participate in APEC which is the economic pillar of the Asia-Pacific region. And APEC has done a lot to further the recovery from the global financial crisis, to empower women economically, and to ensure that growth is inclusive, that its benefits are helping people out of poverty and helping to grow the middle class throughout the region.

And in APEC this year in Manila, we intend to explore how we can help expand the practice of Corporate Social Responsibility to promote more inclusive economic growth.

Now, the oldest, the most venerable pillars of the regional order are our alliances, including our alliance between the United States and the Kingdom of Thailand, and the United States and the Republic of the Philippines. That’s true for Australia, it’s true for Japan, and it’s true for the Republic of Korea. This system of alliances and security partnerships is not a legacy of the 20th century. It is an investment in the 21st century. It is essential. And that’s true for a number of reasons.

Number one -- our alliance system is the backbone of cooperation in the region and around the globe. And it stands for the rule of law when it’s challenged -- and that applies for example to problematic actions to unilaterally change the status quo in the South China Sea. We work regularly with our allies to make sure that our forces can operate together in a crisis at a moment’s notice.

And America’s enduring 182-year and counting close relationship with Thailand is no exception. In fact, together we’ve addressed humanitarian crises, together we’ve responded to natural disasters, we’ve combatted piracy, advanced public health, protected refugees, collaborated on counter-terrorism and law enforcement efforts to fight threats to international security. This cooperation is important to both of us, the region, and the world, and it will continue.

But our relationship with Thailand is defined by more than the number of years that we’ve been allies, or even more than our common interests or our aspirations. Our friendship, founded so long ago, has been constantly refreshed over time -- by Prince Mahidol’s time in the US studying at Harvard; by the birth of His Majesty the King in Massachusetts; by His Majesty’s significant contributions to American culture, by many many connections.

Our broad, enduring friendship is refreshed year in and year out by the thousands of Thai students who come to study in the United States every year, and I hope you will soon be among them. Similarly by the many Americans who come to Thailand to study here. So for over two centuries, Americans have lived in and contributed to Thailand in various ways just as the Thai have done in America.

We stood as partners in WWI, supporting democratic ideals during the conflict in Indochina. We fought the scourge of terrorism as partners for decades and continue to do so today in facing the new and virulent threat of radical jihadism. And we’ve been partners to bringing stability and prosperity to the people of Thailand and more broadly, the region.

For over half a century, the Peace Corps and USAID workers have helped with teaching, helped with rural development. And our health care workers and scientists have collaborated on research to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS. Our law enforcement officers tackle trafficking in persons, narcotics; trafficking in wildlife. And this will continue.

We’ve also enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial economic and trading relationship. The United States is Thailand’s third largest trading partner. American companies are major investors in Thailand, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs here, bringing leading technologies, bringing high standards, and I think that the experience of these US companies shows that it’s not just the quantity of trade and investment that’s important -- although the quantity matters – it’s the quality.

Doing business with America means more training and more skilled development for Thai workers. It means better labor and environmental standards that promote growth. It means an engagement that is helping Thailand to escape the middle income trap and to improve the lives of regular people.

And I particularly want to pick up on Professor Thitinan’s reference to a way in which we are planting the seeds for the future, investing in the future of our relationship today, which is the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative -- YSEALI, definitely not silly. Now I understand -- am I right in thinking there are some YSEALI members in the audience today? Let me see. (Pause.) Alright, welcome, welcome. Well, I'm a fan. Good for you.

I hope that the numbers will expand and that pretty soon all the students will be raising their hands. Because not only is YSEALI a project that President Obama has personally invested a great deal of priority to… as somebody who, himself, was a young person in Southeast Asia for a few years himself, he feels a very powerful connection. He’s a believer in this program.

I’ve been with him repeatedly in Southeast Asia when he’s hosted town hall meetings with YSEALI members here in the region, including some Thai students who asked him questions -- tough questions.

And we’ve brought YSEALI members to the United States as well, and we do so on a regular basis. It’s one way that we’re engaging with young leaders and helping you to engage with each other and to engage across national borders within the ten ASEAN countries, to help promote an ASEAN identity. With your help, YSEALI is creating a cadre of young leaders here that work in partnership with each other and the United States to tackle the challenges that you have identified as important, things that matter to you and that you see as challenges: economic development, environmental protection, education, civic engagement.

I’ve been impressed and I know that President Obama has been tremendously impressed by the quality of the people, of you, of YSEALI members and it’s great to be able to interact with you and I strongly support what you’re doing.

Now more broadly, beyond the students and beyond YSEALI, I know that this is a thoughtful group and you follow the news and you’re interested in bilateral relations. So while I’ve spoken at some length about what defines our partnership, both historically and prospectively, I also need to say something about the political developments here in Thailand and the impact that has on US-Thai relations over the course of the past year.

The fact is, and it’s unfortunate, but our relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago. This morning, I had a chance to sit down and hold discussions with first, former Prime Minister Yingluck, then former Prime Minister Abhisit, and then with the interim Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Tanasak.

And in each case, I’ve discussed the current political situation in Thailand with each of them. And all sides have spoken about the importance of reconciliation and their commitment to work to achieve Thailand’s democratic future.

Now I understand this is an extremely sensitive issue, and I bring it up with all humility and great respect for the Kingdom of Thailand and for the Thai people.

The United States does not take sides in Thai politics. We believe it is for the Thai people to determine the legitimacy of their political and legal processes. But we are concerned about the significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and on assembly, and I’ve been very straightforward about these concerns.

We’re also particularly concerned that the political process doesn’t seem to represent all elements of Thai society. Now I want to repeat, we’re not attempting to dictate the political path that Thailand should follow to get back to democracy or take sides in Thai politics. But an inclusive process promotes political reconciliation, which in turn is key to long-term stability. That’s where our interests lie. The alternative -- a narrow, restricted process -- carries the risk of leaving many Thai citizens feeling that they’ve been excluded from the political process.

That’s the reason why we continue to advocate for a broader and more inclusive political process that allows all sectors of society to feel represented, to feel that their voices are being heard. I’d add that the perception of fairness is also extremely important and although this is being pretty blunt, when an elected leader is removed from office, is deposed, then impeached by the authorities -- the same authorities that conducted the coup -- and then when a political leader is targeted with criminal charges at a time when the basic democratic processes and institutions in the country are interrupted, the international community is going to be left with the impression that these steps could in fact be politically driven.

And that’s why we hope to see a process that reinforces the confidence of the Thai people in their government and their judicial institutions and builds confidence internationally that Thailand is moving towards stable and participatory democracy.

Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions of speech and assembly -- these would be important steps as part of a generally inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country. And we hope that the results of that process will be stable democratic institutions that reflect and respond to the will of the Thai people.

So the message that I’m bringing to all of the people that I’m meeting with today and to you, to the Thai nation, is the same: for the United States, Thailand is a valued friend and important ally. Thailand is a country with whom we’ve got a long-standing history of broad cooperation on the range of issues that I’ve outlined, issues that are important not just to our two countries but to the region and to the globe.

We care deeply about this relationship.

We care deeply about our friendship with all the Thai people.

And we care deeply about Thailand’s prospects for success, and we wish you well.

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