Updated at 7:12 p.m. ET on 2019-07-26
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to travel to Thailand next week, U.S. government officials on Friday noted “significant progress” in the country’s transition from a military junta to a democratic government in 2019.
Pompeo, who is making his first trip to Thailand as secretary of state, will arrive in Bangkok on Aug. 1, where he will participate in ministerial-level meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as meet with officials of the newly installed Thai government.
“The movement from the coup in 2014 to certification of the election demonstrates significant progress,” senior State Department officials told reporters. “We can always work on where we are in terms of democracy, and I look forward to working with the Thais further on this.”
The officials were not named because they were briefing reporters on background about Pompeo’s upcoming trip during a conference call from Washington.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who served as prime minister following the 2014 coup, was recently elected to remain in that position by members of parliament, after Thailand held its first general election since 2011.
Despite the move to democracy, Prayuth announced he was keeping some of the old junta’s executive powers including one to limit the number of people who can participate in political demonstrations, and one empowering authorities to make warrantless arrests.
Human rights advocacy groups have criticized Prayuth for retaining such powers. Some have also questioned whether Thailand has returned to democracy, suggesting that Western powers are not holding Bangkok accountable.
“Some policymakers in Washington and Brussels now appear ready to ignore the problems in Thailand’s fabricated democracy and restore past close military and economic assistance, in part because they are worried about increasing Chinese influence in the region,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post earlier this month.
“Thailand’s friends should be pressing, not easing up on, the Thai military to respect human rights and restore democratic rule. The only message that silence sends is assent,” Sifton said.
In Bangkok, Pompeo will attend the ASEAN Regional Forum Meeting, a security meeting involving 27 countries, during which North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the South China will be among key topics of discussion.
In the run-up to the meeting, there was widespread speculation that the top American diplomat would hold talks with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, on the sidelines of the forum in a bid to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
But on Thursday, reports broke that Pyongyong’s chief diplomat would not come to Bangkok for the regional forum.
On the same day, the North Koreans carried out another nuclear weapons test by launching two short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, reports said. Pyongyang described the launches as a “solemn warning” against “South Korean warmongers,” according to BBC News.
During Friday’s telephone briefing to reporters, the State Department officials were asked if Pompeo might still meet with any North Korean officials in Bangkok.
“[T]his question has been asked before and the response is the same. We – one, we’re not going to talk about the specific bilateral meetings other than the ones that have been announced,” the officials replied.
But, according to the Associated Press, the officials would not rule direct discussions between the U.S. and North Korea.
In Thailand on Aug. 1, Pompeo will also co-chair a U.S. meeting with ASEAN ministers as well as a Lower Mekong Initiative meeting involving Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The LMI was created following a 2009 meeting between then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of the Lower Mekong countries – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam – in order to enhance cooperation in the areas of environment, health, education, and infrastructure development.
South China Sea
The State Department officials also said they expected that matters involving the South China Sea would be discussed during Pompeo’s trip to Bangkok.
“It seems to be a growing interest among the region in the – specifically the code of conduct negotiations and the desire to make sure that any code of conduct is in line with existing international law, naming – namely the Law of the Sea,” the officials said. “It is interesting that China is pushing on these states to limit with whom they do military relations exercises and then with whom they do offshore resource development.”
The U.S. is interested in ensuring stability in the region, the officials said, referring to a recent incident where a Chinese trawler sank a Philippine fishing boat near Recto Bank.
“That was noticed by the Philippines, missile launches and such. So these are – I guess fly in the face of any claims of interest in peace and security,” they said. “So since we’re going to Southeast Asia, the South China Sea is a key part of that.
In addition to attending the regional meetings in Bangkok, Pompeo is expected to meet with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.
“Our relationship with the Kingdom of Thailand remains one of our most important in the Indo-Pacific,” the senior officials at the State Department said. “Our broad cooperation benefits both our countries, the region, and beyond.
“Thailand has performed admirably as the chair of ASEAN this year, and as longtime treaty allies, we are invested in their success in that role.”
Pompeo will travel from Thailand to Australia, and then to Micronesia.