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Thailand at a Critical Juncture, Needs U.S. Help

Thailand is facing its worst water shortage in two decades

This article originally appeared in The Hill on March 17, 2016.

By Jilliana Enteen

Government officials recently announced that Thailand is facing its worst water shortage in two decades. There are droughts in 14 of the 77 provinces.

The beautiful Southeast Asian country with world-renown tropical beaches is facing increasingly severe repercussions from climate change, and that’s not the only cause for concern.

A military coup in 2014, the result of unresolvable debates within the Thai government, left the military running Thailand. They have brought a more oppressive tone to the country, with military courts routinely imposing harsher sentences than did civilian courts. Facebook postings and online comments that are critical of the country’s rulers often lead to harsh sentences, even when the writers were joking. A Thai factory worker faces up to 37 years in prison for making fun of the king's dog, for instance.

The military reign was prolonged last fall after the rejection of a controversial draft of a new constitution. Another drafting process is underway now. Once it’s ratified, the goal will be to hold a democratic election.

Compounding this political uncertainty and growing repression is the fact that Thailand's influential King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest ruling royalty of any nation in history, is ailing. He has not been seen in months. King Bumibol is credited for leading a life dedicated to the Thai people, being among the poor rather sequestered in a castle. He started over 4,000 development projects and provided universal education for all Thai citizens.  

While King Bhumibol Adulyadei has an untarnished reputation of service, his children, including the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and Princess Chulabhorn Waliailak do not have untarnished reputations.

For all of these reasons, Thailand is at a critical juncture and needs the help of the United States.

However, in response to the military coup and the resulting oppressions in the country, the United States has had sanctions against Thailand since 2014. The sanctions include suspending more than $4.7 million of security-related assistance and cancelling training programs with the military and police.

The American government has said it will lift the sanctions after democracy is restored. But the government is sending mixed signals. Last month, the United States sent 3,600 troops to Thailand for a military show, the Cobra Gold. This military show supports the Thai generals who currently rule the country.

To help Thailand in its time of need, the United States should end the mixed signals and fully lift sanctions. This would be a sign of trust to help them through this tumultuous time. It would be a way to reach out and affirm our country’s longstanding relationship with Thailand. It is not a lot to ask for a long-time ally.

The United States has had allegiances with Thailand since the 1833 "Amnity and Commerce Treaty," which solidified positive approaches to political and trade agreements. The allegiance was further strengthened with the 1954 Manila security pact, which stipulated that the signatories uphold equal rights and self-determination among their citizens and that no aggression would be launched between the parties of this treaty.

Thailand was an important ally during the United States’ conflicts with Korea and Vietnam. In fact, during the Vietnam conflict and since, United States troops have enjoyed going to Thailand for rest and relaxation (R&R). Thai people have welcomed the raucous troops with friendliness and patience, understanding their need for fun ("sanuk"—a very important concept in Thai).

Today, the United States continues to designate Thailand a "major non-NATO ally.” Thailand has been a popular tourist destination, with-close to 70 million Americans visiting Thailand in 2013, before the coup. Increasingly, as my research documents, Thailand has also become a major industry for medical tourism for Americans, including for gender reassignment surgery (SRS or GRS), as it boasts excellent surgeons that cater to western clients at a fraction of the cost of medical treatments in the United States.

Not only is it right to help Thailand because of these connections, but helping Thailand now is also an investment for a safer future. The country used to be a democratic stronghold in the region but they are becoming more and more repressive; they are increasingly being compared to Burma despite their longstanding history of peace, stability, and economic growth. Currently, rules against speaking against the king have spread to the military, and Thai citizens have good reason to watch what they say. The recognition of our historical and continued alliance can help them continue to stay democratic.

Some may wonder, how can the United States lift the sanctions without making it seem like they’re condoning the current military rule? A clear endorsement of the United States’ belief that Thailand is headed towards democracy trumps the idea that lifting sanctions condemnations of military rule. The United States did not impose sanctions during the 2006 military coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, so another period of overlooking temporary military rule for democratic reform is in order.

Even though the United States does not need Thailand as much as before, Thailand still needs us. Being a good ally means helping when we don’t always need help back.

- Jilliana Enteen is assistant professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. She is a member of the Op-Ed Project’s Public Voices Fellowship at NU.

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