Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and U.S. President Donald Trump discussed ways to battle terrorism and improve bilateral trade as the leader of Thailand’s military government paid a controversial visit to the White House on Monday.
The Trump administration’s decision to invite Prayuth to the White House came three years after the now retired army general led a coup that overthrew the civilian-led government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
“We have a very strong relationship right now … and it’s getting stronger in the last nine months,” Trump told Prayuth. Thailand is among America’s oldest allies, and bilateral relations date back more than 200 years, to 1818.
“Our relationship on trade is becoming more and more important and it’s a great country to trade with.” Trump said. “I think we’re going to try to sell a little bit more to you.”
The visit was expected to bolster Prayuth’s domestic and international image just days after the Thai Supreme Court convicted and sentenced Yingluck in absentia to five years in prison for criminal negligence in a corruption-plagued rice subsidy scheme.
But Prayuth’s meeting with Trump – a rare instance of a Thai junta leader being honored in Washington – was overshadowed by one of the deadliest shootings in United States history, with police saying that at least 58 people were killed and more than 500 others injured by a gunman in Las Vegas overnight. The meeting between the two leaders also took place as much of the American public’s attention was focused on hurricane devastated Puerto Rico.
Speaking through an interpreter, Prayuth touched on the two American tragedies.
“Of course, Thailand would like to take this opportunity to express my condolences to those victims and family of the shooting incident in Las Vegas last night,” Prayuth said. “And I wish to express our solidarity with the American people.”
“Moreover, I would also like to express my condolences to those victims and their family in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico who are affected by hurricane,” he said, adding that his government and the Thai private sector had pledged financial assistance.
The Thai prime minister said he was optimistic about strengthening bilateral cooperation. The two leaders sat side by side in gold-tone chairs, as U.S. First Lady Melania Trump and Naraporn, Prayuth’s wife, sat on couches facing each other, according to a transcript of the event released by the White House.
Last year, the United States had a trade deficit of about $19 billion with Thailand, America’s 11th largest trading partner. The United States is Thailand’s third largest source of imports, after China and Japan.
The United States and Thailand established relations in 1818 and formalized diplomatic relations after signing the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833, according to the U.S. State Department.
Prayuth underscored the 200-year-old relationship.
“We work, of course, in hand on our security defense cooperation to help ensure that our citizens are safeguarded from terrorism and other threats,” he said. “Of course, we will work closely in order to solve the regional issues of concern.”
At least one political observer viewed Prayuth’s visit as a reflection of a foreign policy shift by Washington since the Trump administration came to power.
“The visit reflects official recognition of the Thai government. It is very rare that the U.S. welcomes [the head of a] military government to visit the White House,” Sutin Wannabovorn, a Thai political observer and former journalist, told BenarNews. “It enhances the political credibility of Prayuth at domestic and international level.”
Since taking office in January, President Trump has met a slew of controversial leaders at the White House, including Egypt’s strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysian leader Najib Razak. He has also praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Before Prayuth’s visit, the last Thai junta chief to visit the White House was Prem Tinsulanonda, who visited President Ronald Reagan there in 1984.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the two leaders would not be expected to discuss the human rights situation in Thailand since Prayuth took power in 2014.
“The ugly political realities of the visit – that Thailand is ruled by a military junta and the Trump administration doesn’t care – will be papered over with repetitions of old tropes typically trotted out during U.S.-Thailand diplomatic meetings,” Sifton said in a statement issued on the eve of Prayuth’s stop at the White House.
“Both sides will praise the nations’ ‘enduring’ ties,” he said. “Someone may even recount the old chestnut about King Mongkut offering to send war elephants to President Abraham Lincoln at the start of the U.S. Civil War.”
Prayuth’s Oct. 2-4 U.S. visit includes meetings with U.S. Congressional leaders and a gala dinner in Washington hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Business Council, Thailand’s foreign ministry said.