Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Ugly American is alive and kicking

Many Thais have reacted with fury to what is being widely seen as a case of the US meddling in Thai politics. The incident brings to mind "The Ugly American", a film made more than 50 years ago during the cold war. It portrayed America's arrogant behaviour towards a third-world country.

The outcry against the US came in response to inappropriate remarks about Thai politics made by the visiting Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of the US State Department for East Asia. Russel questioned whether there had been political motives behind the move to oust Yingluck Shinawatra and the subsequent vote at the National Legislative Assembly to impeach her retroactively and indict her over the rice-pledging scandal. The US envoy also urged Thailand to end martial law and return to the democratic path.

The Thai government responded swiftly to Russel's "Ugly American" attitude, underling the fact that Thailand is an independent country capable of handling its own internal affairs. Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai summoned W Patrick Murphy, the US charge d'affaires, to lodge a protest against Russel's intervention, which enraged many Thais.

"If we comply [with US wishes] … and lift martial law and it leads to problems, how will those people who are asking for the lifting of martial law take responsibility?" Don said. "In reality, Thais don't even know there is martial law."

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha commented that Thai-US relations would continue as normal because the latest incident shouldn't affect the overall relationship.

"It saddens me that the United States does not understand the reason why I had to intervene and does not understand the way we work, even though we have been close allies for years," he added.

Russel's remark hit a nerve among many Thais, who are yet to recover from a bitter political divide that has lasted for a decade. Russel seemed to show his sympathy towards Yingluck and the Pheu Thai Party, at a time when many Thais are agitated over her role in presiding over a disastrous rice pledging scheme that cost the Kingdom almost Bt700 billion.

"The Ugly American" stars Marlon Brando and MR Kukrit Pramoj, and depicts the US's overbearing attitude in trying to ward off the threat of communism in Sarkhan, a fictitious country in Southeast Asia. US officials offer Sarkhan foreign aid but it comes with conditions that further America's narrow self-interest without taking into account the local conditions, culture or way of life. "The Ugly American" reportedly prompted US president Dwight Eisenhower to call for an adjustment of US foreign policy. President John F Kennedy is thought to have sent a copy of the book on which the film is based to every US senator.

So it seems strange that, more than 50 years later, the ugly American attitude in foreign policy has apparently worsened rather than improved. The US administration now adopts multiple standards for the different countries it deals with. For Thailand, now under a military regime, the US is calling for democracy and a general election. For Cuba, the US is trying to re-establish diplomatic relations despite the rigid communist regime there. Notably, Washington is not calling for a return to democracy as a precondition to re-establishing relations with Havana. In Egypt, the US backed a military coup to oust the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi. The US and its allies did the same thing in Ukraine, where a democratically elected government had been leaning towards Russia. Meanwhile the US considers Saudi Arabia its main ally in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has no parliament, political parties, politicians or elections, and does not tolerate dissent.

If the US continues to practise double standards in its foreign policy and to display its "Ugly American" attitude, Thais have the right to say enough is enough. Times have changed. The US should learn to treat other countries on equal terms.

If it cannot do so, Thailand and the US should go their separate ways.
Thanong Khanthong

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