US voices frustration over democracy progress in Thailand

US voices frustration over lack of progress on democracy in Thailand, 18 months after coup

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States has expressed deep frustration over the lack of democratic progress in Thailand after last year's military coup, saying a new constitution there won't pass the "smell test" unless civil society helps to draft it.

Political developments in Thailand came under congressional scrutiny Thursday as a Senate foreign relations panel examined the state of democracy in Southeast Asia.

State Department officials reported a mixed picture, with good news in Indonesia, the Philippines and former pariah state Myanmar after landmark elections this month, but bad news in Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia.

"We have seen backsliding of late. And of course millions of other Southeast Asians in countries like Laos and Vietnam continue to live under repressive and authoritarian governments," said Scott Busby, deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor.

The panel's Republican chairman, Sen. Cory Gardner, and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin voiced particular concern over long-standing U.S. ally Thailand, where a May 2014 military takeover deposed an elected government after a prolonged political unrest. The ruling junta has squelched dissent. Washington has responded by restricting military aid.

James Carouso, director of the department's office of Southeast Asian affairs, said the U.S. is eager to restore full relations once civilian rule is restored, but it has been "incredibly frustrating" working with Thailand.

The military has pushed back its schedule for elections until mid-2017, and there's still uncertainty when a new constitution that can win popular approval will be in place to allow the elections to take place. In September, an unpopular draft constitution was scrapped. Last month, another junta-appointed panel was appointed to draft a new one.

"The Thai polity is in a state of stasis and we're finding it hard to convince them to take the courageous step for them in writing a new constitution to let the people feel they can decide their future," Carouso said.

"Our main ask of them right now is to keep to the schedule and bring in civil society to help write the document or it's not going to stand the smell test," he said.

He said that Thailand has used its relationship with China as leverage to persuade the U.S. not to push it too hard on reform but this wasn't affecting U.S. policy.

The department officials also had critical words for Malaysia, Thailand's southern neighbor.

Carouso said civil rights had been going downhill in recent months -- particularly since Prime Minister Najib Razak faced accusations of corruption over a fund he set up to develop new industries -- and President Barack Obama would reiterate the U.S. concern when he visits for an Asian leaders' summit this week.

In a letter Thursday, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez also urged Obama to press Malaysia on human trafficking.

Malaysia was taken off of a State Department trafficking blacklist in July. Lawmakers have alleged the decision was driven by Malaysia's participation in U.S.-backed regional trade pact.