US to hold major military exercise again in Thailand
WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States plans to hold its annual Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand again next year despite concern that a post-coup government is slipping in its timetable for restoring democracy, a senior U.S. official said Thursday.
Cobra Gold is one of the world’s largest, multilateral military exercises. It has been held in Thailand since 1982, but was scaled down this year because of May 2014 coup and focused on humanitarian operations training.
Senior State Department official Scot Marciel told a congressional hearing that the exercise was important to the U.S. and the region, and the administration decided this week to go ahead with preparations for the 2016 edition. He said Cobra Gold would be scaled down again because of the political situation in Thailand.
Marciel was one of three administration officials testifying on the state of democracy in Asia before a House subcommittee that oversees U.S. foreign policy toward the region. The officials expressed concern that the interim government in Thailand had not established a clear timeline for a possible public referendum on a draft constitution.
“There are signs that parliamentary elections — once tentatively scheduled for fall 2015, then early 2016 — could slip even further. We are concerned that without a timely, transparent, and inclusive reform process, the Thai government will never enjoy the public buy-in necessary to build lasting institutions,” the officials said in joint, prepared testimony.
Thailand is a U.S. treaty ally, but the 182-year diplomatic relationship has been strained since Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha toppled an elected government and seized power following a prolonged period of political instability and violence. The military government has cracked down on political opponents and enforced strict curbs on free expression.
The U.S. has criticized the junta and suspended $4.7 million in military assistance after the coup, but has done little else to punish the Southeast Asian nation, which remains an important hub for American engagement with the region.
The administration reiterated Thursday that suspended assistance won’t be resumed until a democratically-elected government takes office in Thailand. The U.S. will also carefully vet on a case-by-case basis whether to proceed with high-level engagements and training programs with the military and police.