HE Glyn T. Davies took up his country’s top diplomatic post in Thailand seven months ago, in the midst of a periodic flare-up of local anti-American sentiment. Comments by some US diplomats and officials on Thailand’s rights-curbing regime had been interpreted by some as interfering in Thailand’s national affairs. Formerly a senior adviser in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State and special representative of the US Secretary of State for North Korea policy, Ambassador Davies took up a post which had been vacant for nearly a year following the departure of former ambassador Kristie Kenney. He recently sat down with Elite+ to discuss his government’s views on the NCPO administration, freedom of speech in Thailand and the country’s role in ASEAN.
After the coup, US law required the imposition of certain limits on our assistance to Thailand. What I want to emphasize is despite that, there is much more positive work that we do together that helps both Thailand and the USA. We have a very strong relationship that helps to provide stability and security in the region. We have a broad law enforcement relationship that guards against transnational crimes like human trafficking. We work on medical research together on everything from AIDS to malaria. Our business relationship is extensive. We have US$50 billion invested in the Kingdom with hundreds of American companies here. Our people to people relationship is significant. Some 7,000 Thais are studying in the USA. So we have a strong mutually beneficial relationship with Thailand.
- How did you feel being assigned to a post in Thailand when our countries’ relations are quite fragile?
I wouldn’t describe the relationship as fragile, although that’s the perception of many. The truth is the relationship is very deep, robust and broad and to the benefit of both Thailand and the USA. It’s true that after the coup, there have been certain limits placed on our relationship that will remain until Thailand returns to a civilian elected government. But that hasn’t stopped or slowed down much of the progress that we have made in vital areas.
- Thailand, and how far away are we from what it should be?
We don’t set up specific expectations for specific countries when it comes to media freedom. We’re attached to the principle of free speech and freedom of association based on universal principles. These are principles set forth by UN documents to which Thailand has subscribed as well. We think it’s very important for the strength of modern societies that press can be free to report. Our experience has shown that society progresses fastest and deals most effectively with the challenges it faces when the people can know the truth about what’s happening. That all members of society can have a voice in the country’s future is really important for the society to move forward and function well. These are the kinds of points that we make to the Thai government about the importance of Thailand adhering to those principles. When we see laws passed or situations developing here that tend to restrict those civil liberties we speak out. We want Thailand to be strong, free, prosperous and stable.
- Given the current realities in Thailand, do you think true democracy is even possible?
Every democracy has to be suitable for the nation in which it is established. So it’s very much for Thais to decide what form of government, what form of democracy they will have. Thailand has shown in the past that it can successfully function as a democracy. We do hope that Thailand will find its way back to democracy, that Thai people will have opportunities to participate in conversations about the political life of their nation and help decide the future of the nation, which is what democracy is all about. It’s not just about voting. We understand Thailand is facing challenges; some of them are quite big. Democracy is not easy. Nothing valuable is easy. We’re going through it now in America so we know how hard it is to make democracy function.
- How will a US president from the Democratic or Republican party affect foreign policy? And how might US diplomats around the world need to adjust?
Here’s the funny thing about democracy. Who knows? I don’t know what exactly a president from either party would do in foreign policy. But I believe regardless of who the president will be the policies will pretty much remain the same. We’ll still be attached to the same principles when it comes to free speech. We’ll still work to deal with refugee problems, fight terrorism, create stability and prosperity.
I believe all that will remain the same. There will be, of course, differences that arise from the major candidates but we’re not yet at the stage to know for sure who will be the candidates for the Democratic and the Republican parties. Once we reach that point and they begin to debate the future of the USA and their foreign policies, we’ll know more what plans each candidate has for the administration after the election in November this year.
- How does the US government perceive ASEAN?
The announcement of the development of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end last year was a big positive step forward for ASEAN that we support. President Obama invited all the leaders of ASEAN to southern California in February precisely to demonstrate that the United States believes in ASEAN. We think it can be a big part of the future success of Southeast Asia. For us, Southeast Asia is increasingly important since so much of the world’s economic dynamism and energy and resources are here. We hope that ASEAN continues to come together in terms of its views and interests, which we think are in the interests of the 600 million people of the 10 nations, and continues to break down the barriers – be it anything, trade or labour – between them and cooperate better together. We want to have a good relationship with ASEAN and to help it to get stronger.