Tense nerves hurt US ties

In diplomacy and bilateral relations, using the right word or words, could mean warm embraces and mutual compliments or sharp barbs and rebuke between ministers and diplomats. Last week, two words -- concerned and condemned -- prompted stinging criticism of US Ambassador Glyn T Davies.

A string of incidents, social media attacks and comments from Thai leaders, highlights once again that ties between the US and Thailand since the May 22 coup two years ago are not as warm as they should be.

But this is nothing new. Both countries have been long-time treaty allies and should know and understand by now the trigger points that would cloud the atmosphere of ties during these difficult times. This incident could have been avoided.

It all started when the US commented on the arrest of Patnaree Chankij, charged with violating the lese majeste law in a one-word Facebook post. Authorities claim there was more to the post but did not reveal details.

The US statement was no surprise. Washington was reiterating a principle by raising serious concerns about Thailand's adherence to its international obligation to protect freedom of expression. Washington did not use the word "condemn" -- that was used by an international wire service and headlined in a British newspaper.

But clearly, Thailand was not happy with the statement and preparations were made for the US ambassador to clarify the statement after a scheduled meeting with Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. It was an awkward press briefing in which Mr Don was visibly dissatisfied when Mr Davies started reading the US statement verbatim to stress that the word condemn was not used. The minister interrupted saying a simple confirmation that the word condemned was not used would suffice.

This incident shows, once again, that time has changed Thai-US relations. The fact that we are treaty allies has not changed. But the US officials and congressmen that helped build relations, made mutual sacrifices and helped forge the Thai-US defence alliance from the 1960s to 80s have either left the scene or are about to fade away.

From the Thai perspective, US officials see things in black and white, lacking depth and perspective. For many Thai officials, a treaty ally should provide sympathy, support and encouragement when their partner is in trouble. And Thailand is in trouble. Yes, issues of principle are important but US comments are less tactful than before.

Despite this sentiment, comments by prominent Thais on social media, followed by statements from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, were unnecessary and unhelpful.

After the press briefing, vitriolic attacks were lodged against the ambassador. The most stinging criticism came from former House speaker Arthit Ourairat who described the ambassador's action as despicable, lacking in diplomacy, urging he be sent back to Washington and be declared persona non grata.

Gen Prayut's comment that Mr Davies' negative attitude toward Thai human rights will backfire did not help. His comment: "Is Thailand a US colony?" brings back memories of the quote in 2003 by then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on UN concerns regarding his anti-drug campaign.

The prime minister's colony comment only added fuel to the fire raging on social media. Even though he tempered his comments, urging calm, the damage was already done.

Times have changed and yes, relations have changed as well. But long-time allies should really know and understand each other's trigger points. This incident could have been avoided. One party claims principle, the other is quickly aroused by nationalism. This mixture is diplomatically lethal.

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