Marking 200 years as an ally with Thailand, the United States returned with its largest contingent of troops since before a Thai military coup in 2014, as both countries kicked off the annual Cobra Gold Exercise 2018 in Rayong province on Tuesday.
Gen. Tanchaiyan Srisuwan, chief of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, called the 10-day joint military exercises being co-hosted by the two countries a “heavy year” for Cobra Gold. As many as 11,000 troops from Thailand, the U.S. and 27 other countries are taking part in the exercises at the U-Tapao Naval Air Base.
“The number of troops is up this cycle and has nothing to do with the politics at all. Some years, the U.S. had other operations to conduct such as in the Middle East, so participation in past years was reduced,” Tanchaiyan told reporters at the ceremony. “The same as our side, it depends on budget and planning.”
The 37th edition of Cobra Gold runs through Feb. 23 and involves troops from five fully participating countries – namely Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan – a Thai official said.
About 6,800 U.S. personnel will participate either ashore or at sea, according to the U.S. embassy. That represents nearly twice the number of troops involved in previous Cobra Gold exercises that followed the coup, which toppled the civilian-led government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra four years ago.
After the coup installed a junta that remains in power today, the Obama administration scaled down U.S. participation in the annual exercise. In 2016, American Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies spoke about the U.S. decision to send about 3,600 troops, a number similar to the previous year. The U.S. sent about 9,000 personnel to the annual event prior to the coup.
“As deep and broad as our partnership is today, it will grow stronger still when, as the prime minister has affirmed, Thailand returns to elected governance. With a strengthened, sustainable democratic system, Thailand’s regional leadership role, and our alliance, can reach its full potential,” Davies said in 2016, according to media reports.
He was referring to pledges by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the general who led the coup, to steer Thailand back to a path of democracy and hold elections. The junta, however, has postponed the promise of nationwide polls on several occasions, but the Trump administration increased the U.S. contingent for this year’s Cobra Gold.
Tanchaiyan and Davies, along with U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, oversaw Tuesday’s opening ceremony.
“Our goal is to work with so many partners and nations here in Cobra Gold in Thailand. And you think about the humanitarian disaster operations that we have done. ... We are better when we come together,” Nicholson told reporters.
Cobra Gold consists of a command post exercise, humanitarian projects and disaster relief and field training exercises. Highlights will include an amphibious landing on Saturday at Had Yao and a combined live-fire exercise on Feb. 23 at Baan Chantaklem in Chanthaburi province.
Among the other countries participating in or observing the warfare training and humanitarian exercises are the Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and China.
Myanmar’s invitation to observe the humanitarian and disaster relief training drew criticism from U.S. congressional leaders and others over a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military in Rakhine state. The crackdown since August 2017 has brought about widespread accusations that Myanmar has targeted members of the Rohingya Muslim minority in an ethnic cleansing campaign.
As its relationship with the U.S. cooled toward the end of the Obama administration, Thailand moved closer to China, which is participating in the humanitarian projects this year after observing the exercises for several years, and Russia.
Thailand recently signed a contract to purchase three submarines valued at 36 billion baht ($1.1 billion) from China, expecting the first delivery in the next five to six years.
Last month, the Royal Thai Army showcased the newly acquired Chinese-built VT-4 main battle tanks to the media to refute public doubts about the quality of Chinese-made weapons. Thailand plans to purchase at least 48 Chinese tanks to replace 1950s-era U.S. M-41 tanks.
Cobra Gold opens at a time when Thailand has faced a series of protests tied to an announcement by the deputy prime minister on Jan. 25 that a general election would again delayed – this time from November 2018 to early 2019.
Two days later, pro-democracy activists identified as “Red Shirts,” protested against the delay, leading to the arrests of 39 activists for violating Thailand’s strict Public Gathering Act, which bans crowds of more than five people. On Jan. 30, seven of the protest leaders were charged with sedition and defying the gathering act and the other 32 were later charged with violating the gathering act.
Last week, 35 of the activists reported to police to face charges after they were allowed time to prepare for bail following their arrests. This past Saturday, 300 to 400 people gathered at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok to urge the junta to hold the election in November. The gathering was one of the largest by pro-democracy activists since the coup.
An academic at Ubon Ratchathani University told BenarNews that the demonstrators were making a case for their demand to return Thailand to a democratically elected government.
“The demonstrations reflect demands for basic human rights. But most of them are Red Shirts, so they are seen as dissidents,” said Thitipol Pakdeewanich, a political science lecturer. “At this moment I think the Red Shirt demonstrators are too few. The business sector is OK with the government and there is no sufficient pressure from the foreign community.”