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Putting hearts and minds in Thai-US ties - Kavi Chongkittavorn

The international rescue of 12 boys and their football coach in Chiang Rai earlier this month quickly permeated into the conference room of the Thai-US dialogue in Washington DC last week. The feel-good atmosphere jump-started the much-needed dialogue between the region's oldest allies.

For weeks, major US media outlets, including The Washington Post and CNN, kept the international rescue of the "Wild Boar" footballers and their coach continuously in the headlines -- something very rare for stories datelined Thailand -- except for breaking news about its numerous military coups over the years.

The efforts to save these children captured the hearts of the international community, specifically Americans, who at first thought it would need more than a miracle to save those kids. So when they were found alive and all were saved by the international rescue team, it made Thailand look really good.

The 1.5 track dialogue between the Thai and US sides returned after a 16-year absence. Kudos must go to the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation, which worked so hard to get all the relevant officials, private sectors and scholars from both countries into one room to discuss all aspects of bilateral issues.

The previous four rounds were held when these ties were more stable. Indeed, this time the dialogue came at the right time, as the two countries are commemorating their 200-year-old relations, the region's oldest. The salutation used by President Abraham Lincoln in his 1862 letter to King Mongkut, as "Great and Good Friends", has been used as the theme of the year-long celebration.

Former US ambassador to Thailand Stapleton Roy led the US delegation bringing together senior officials, former diplomats, representatives from the private sector and scholars. Indeed, nearly all the so-called Thai experts in Washington DC attended the dialogue. Popular former US ambassador to Thailand Ralph "Skip" Boyce was also there.

From the Thai side, former Thai prime minister Chuan Leekpai was accompanied by 11 delegates including former deputy prime minister Phongthep Thepkanjana, former National Security Council chief Gen Thawip Netniyom and former president of Thai Trade Representative Kiat Sittheeamorn, among others.

Over the two-day event, almost all delegates from both sides made reference to the cave miracle. The Thai side was very appreciative of the US assistance as the American team dispatched by the Indo-Pacific Command was the first to arrive on the scene less than 22 hours after the Thai request. For the US, the interoperability between the two countries paid off as they worked well together with other international teams during the highly challenging mission. Altogether they emphasised that in times of crisis both countries showed their true colours. It must be this spirit of enduring friendship that smoothed this kind of complex cooperation. This time there was no demonisation.

More than officials would like to admit, the super-positive news coverage of the cave rescue has given Thailand and its military rulers a big break from the negative news cycle. Now they can look forward to holding the long-awaited election tentatively planned for Feb 24 next year. However, this date could be changed if "unexpected circumstances" arise.

The Thai and American participants admitted that while the election is not the only factor that would normalise bilateral relations, it is a necessary matter that will help boost relations to the next level. The American participants agreed that Thailand is one of the region's most important partners of the US, both as a defence ally and a trading partner. There are a lot more both countries could do.

Of course, over the past decade, Singapore and Vietnam have been the US darlings as far as strategic and economic matters are concerned. Both were members of the now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership which recently morphed into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Tran-Pacific Partnership. These two countries know exactly how to make themselves relevant to the ongoing US strategic framework. In Washington, their presence and voices are often heard loud and clear, dominating the various narratives of Southeast Asia.

After the US visit of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last October, Thai-US ties changed for the better. In the past few months, exchanges of senior officials have also increased and cooperation has intensified. Thai Ambassador to the US Virachai Plasai revealed that this month alone several Thai leaders are visiting Washington, including Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. This week Mr Don is attending the first-ever religious freedom ministerial meeting in Washington. A meeting with State Secretary Mike Pompeo has also been scheduled to discuss bilateral issues.

The upgrade of Thailand's status to Tier 2 in the latest US State Department Trafficking in Persons report finally came after years of hard work in prosecuting hundreds of culprits. It was one of the bright spots that both sides would bring up. Indeed, it was long overdue. It is understandable why Washington and civil society organisations were slow in giving their recognition on this issue. Deep down, they did not want to send the wrong signal that they were in any way supporting a non-elected military government. Finally they had to, as sufficient progress has been made, give full recognition. Obviously, more improvement is needed.

It must be said here that human rights issues remain high on the Thai-US agenda. As a democracy, imperfect as it is, Thailand is expected by American and European friends to have a higher standard of human rights. After all these years, these expectations remain unfulfilled. However, these days they are more cognisant of specific circumstances of the kingdom which impact the human rights situation. Within the Asean region, Thailand has the feistiest human rights defenders, such as Angkhana Neelapaijit and Somchai Homla-or, to name but two who are on the front line against rights abuses.

Thai-US relations are complex and require both sides to work closely together. Since their ties have been enduring for a long time, good and bad memories are abundant.

For the past nearly six decades, the relationship was dominated by security cooperation. That helps to explain why during Thailand's numerous coups and their aftermaths, military ties have rescued their withering friendship. The annual Cobra Gold, the region's largest military exercise, has continued unabated despite deteriorated ties with Washington.

Now, both sides want to see more diversification in their ties so they are more holistic. At this juncture, there is an urgent need, especially under the Trump administration, to increase trade and investment. Thailand is the 11th largest country in terms of its trade surplus with America. From now onward, there will be more talks about Thailand's increased investment in the US and the job opportunities created for the Americans.

The US's reformation of the Asia-Pacific region to the Indo-Pacific has given a new platform for Thailand to reassert its role in the regional strategic environment. As next year's Asean chair, Thailand has to take this opportunity to put meat on the bones of this new strategy. Along with other Asean members, Thailand can ensure that the new Indo-Pacific would benefit regional peace, stability and prosperity for all. Furthermore, being an independent country with a balanced foreign policy, it can also prevent any country from taking a hegemonic position in this neighbourhood.

A day prior to the dialogue, a memorial service for Surin Pitsuwan, former Thai foreign minister and secretary-general of Asean, was organised by the Asia Foundation at the Cosmos Club. Former US State Secretary Madeleine Albright, former defence secretary William Cohen and Mr Chuan spoke about Surin with candour. They all recognised Surin's contribution to regional diplomacy, human security, education and, of course, Asean's engagement with the international community.

In the future, the Asia Foundation will release a full report of the dialogue together with a series of recommendations to further strengthen the friendship as it heads into its third century.