Opinion: Will a Biden or Trump presidency pressure Bangkok for real democracy?

The world has witnessed a huge wave of democratization since the late twentieth century, yet, in recent years, it seems to have been replaced by an autocratic wave.

Donald Trump’s ascension to the U.S. presidency in 2017 has been suggested by some as contributing to the acceleration of this new global trend.  

“Democracy advocates around the world have historically turned to the United States for inspiration and support, and Congress has continued to fund programs to that end in practice. To date, however, the Trump administration has failed to exhibit consistent commitment to a foreign policy based on the principles of democracy and human rights,” said Freedom House in its 2020 report.  

The Trump administration prioritizes economic or geopolitical interests when it comes to international relations. Trump sits comfortably next to dictators if it serves US interests or his own without consideration for democracy and human rights issues.

Trump many times even praises undemocratic behaviors of authoritarian and strongman leaders such as the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drug and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Aside from foreign policy, Trump also shows his inclination towards authoritarianism internally.

“Fierce rhetorical attacks on the press, the rule of law, and other pillars of democracy coming from American leaders, including the president himself, undermine the country’s ability to persuade other governments to defend core human rights and freedoms, and are actively exploited by dictators and demagogues,” the same Freedom House report said.

Thailand is one of the countries affected by this slide towards authoritarianism. Although the coup was staged before the rise of Trump, his unconventional foreign policy has played a part in allowing authoritarianism to thrive more easily in Thailand.

During Barack Obama’s presidency which actively advocated democracy and human rights in the global community, the U.S. administration issued a statement of condemnation immediately after the 2014 coup and downgraded relations with Thailand in some areas.

The Obama administration kept on pressuring the Thai junta to return to democracy and expressed disapproval over the limitations of liberty and dissent.

These issues were always raised during face-to-face meetings between high-ranking officials with Obama directly questioning Prayut Chan-ocha on the country’s democratic progress.

This has changed under Trump. The U.S. push for Thai democratic reform has been toned down significantly.   

Under Trump, Washing pushed for more engagement with Thailand while it was still ruled by the junta culminating in Prayut’s visit to the White House in 2017.

Although Thailand has already had the general election in 2019, many view the current constitution and the electoral process as highly unusual if not undemocratic. If Trump stays in power, it is likely that Washington’s tolerance for dictatorships will continue.

“If Trump wins, you can expect more personality-driven policies, more chaos. We would be operating in a world where the US takes a backseat, where authoritarians are emboldened and democratic freedoms run over,” said Manpreet Singh Anand, the Asia-Pacific Regional Director at the National Democracy Institute in Washington during the ‘US 2020 Presidential Election Webinar.’

But what if Joe Biden wins the election?

Biden is campaigning to repair and reinvigorate US democracy and its image around the world. Biden said he wants to organize and host a global Summit for Democracy his first year in office with an aim to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.

Being a vice president in the Obama administration, Biden is anticipated to pursue a similar foreign policy with Obama which places democracy and human rights as a cornerstone of any decision making.

Should Biden become the U.S. president, the Bangkok government could face pressure from Washington once again to restore fundamental rights.

Nevertheless, it cannot be certain that Biden would push through democracy and human rights internationally as expected because geopolitical rivalry, especially against China, has become the top concern for US foreign and national security policy.

“We will continue to see a desire on the part of the US government to maintain good relations with semi-authoritarian governments if that is considered to be a nation in the national security interest,” said David Timberman, the Director for Asia Programs at Freedom House.

“I believe we will see a continued reluctance to push too hard on democracy and human rights in countries where the U.S. government does not want the other government to become too much closer to China,” said Timberman.

Thailand is considered to be strategically important in Washington’s attempt to contain China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia and whoever is president will unlikely want to alienate the government in Bangkok, no matter its democratic pedigree.

Increasingly, it looks like a Trump or Biden presidency may choose to turn a blind eye on authoritarianism for its own geopolitical gains.

By Wongpun Amarinthewa

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