Trump-Prayut meet to seal Thai-US normalisation

Trump-Prayut meet to seal Thai-US normalisation

Until now, the two leaders have only talked on the phone, but on Monday night (Thailand time) they will meet at the White House. (File photos)
Until now, the two leaders have only talked on the phone, but on Monday night (Thailand time) they will meet at the White House. (File photos)

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will meet US President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday night, Thailand time, marking an upgrade of ties between traditional allies that have been strained since the 2014 coup.

His visit will be the first official visit by a Thai prime minister since ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's trip to Washington in 2005, a year before another army coup overturned his rule.

Gen Prayut and Mr Trump have at least one thing in common. Both have a history of lashing out at the media, with Prime Minister Prayut infamously warning in 2015 that he has the power to execute reporters. He said he was joking.

Washington was critical of Gen Prayut's May 22, 2014, coup. It cut some aid and downgraded joint military exercises with Thailand. Some training, including the annual Cobra Gold military exercise, Asia's largest, continued but only on a smaller scale.

Monday's White House meeting will underscore Mr Trump's willingness to embrace authoritarian leaders and regimes at the expense of human rights concerns, rights groups say.

He welcomed Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi earlier this year, drawing criticism from rights groups who say Sisi has overseen a draconian crackdown on activists, something the Egyptian strongman denies.

Bangkok's ties with North Korea, Thailand's trade surplus with the United States and defence issues will be high on the agenda for the White House meeting, Thai government and senior Thai military sources believe.

The visit will be an opportunity for the Americans to highlight North Korean business operations in Thailand after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Thailand to shut down North Korean businesses during a visit to Bangkok last month.

A senior military source said Thailand will also discuss new defence purchase deals and finalise existing ones, including the delivery of four Black Hawk helicopters Thailand agreed to buy from the US before the 2014 coup.

'FREEZING OUT' NORTH KOREA

Washington says it wants Thailand to take a diplomatic lead in the region in "freezing out" North Korea, which has an embassy in Thailand.

In response to US pressure, Thailand last month said trade between North Korea and Thailand had dropped by 94% this year.

Last week's announcement by China that is was expelling all North Korean businesses, including restaurant joint ventures, will increase pressure on Gen Prayut to do the same.

But information on the ground paints a different picture.

Reuters reporters visited seven businesses jointly or party owned by North Koreans out of 12 businesses listed in the Thai commerce ministry's business directory last month.

At least two people involved in those North Korean businesses who spoke to reporters claimed there has been no pressure from the Thai authorities. Another said indirect pressure meant he could no longer ship directly to North Korea.

All three declined to be named.

The Bank of Thailand has no policy to close down accounts owned by North Koreans in Thailand and an official at the central bank declined to comment about its regulations regarding North Korean-owned businesses and bank accounts.

The matter is acutely sensitive for the government, which last month even denied that Mr Tillerson had raised North Korea during his Bangkok visit.

In August, Thai media reported that Prime Minister Prayut had ordered news organisations to stop "digging" into North Korean businesses in Thailand.

'INTENSIFIED REPRESSION'

The visit also gives the outspoken former army chief a chance to burnish his leadership credentials amid signs he may be seeking to stay in power after an election tentatively scheduled for next year.

Since seizing power in 2014, the junta has banned protests, jailed critics and ramped up prosecutions under the lese majeste law.

"Get ready for PM Gen Prayut to crow long and hard that this invite means he now has Washington's full seal of approval, and that Trump agrees with whatever comes next," claimed Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.

"Doubtless Trump fails to realise that this propaganda victory for Prayut ... will come at the expense of the people of Thailand who will pay for it in the form of intensified repression," said Adams.

Lt Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the government spokesman, declined to comment when contacted by Reuters about the US trip.

US pressure over the size of Thailand's trade surplus with the United States is also on Monday's Trump-Prayut agenda.

Thailand was the United States' 25th-largest goods export market in 2016, but the US suffers an $18.9 billion annual trade deficite, the 11th largest.

The Ministry of Commerce officially hopes a narrowing trade gap will reduce the risk of Thailand being labelled a currency manipulator by Washington.


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