WASHINGTON – When Thailand's prime minister meets with President Bush (search), the conversation will likely include the countries' vibrant trade and increased military cooperation.
But a group of U.S. lawmakers is also pushing Bush to publicly take Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (search) to task for his cozy relationship with the military dictatorship in neighboring Myanmar (also known as Burma) and for pummeling the democratic freedoms of Thai citizens.
"We want to see Thailand emerge as a bastion of freedom and democracy, not as a ... partner with the Burmese dictatorship," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Human Rights. "Friends don't let friends enable dictatorship."
A group of lawmakers asked Bush in a letter to publicize U.S. dissatisfaction with Thailand's economic and political ties with Myanmar "so that Prime Minister Thaksin cannot portray the meeting as an endorsement of his policies."
Despite the rumblings in Congress, the Thai-U.S. relationship is generally good, with the White House praising Thailand as "a long-standing ally and a democratic partner."
Thaksin was to meet with Bush on Monday. His visit comes as the two countries continue to negotiate a free-trade agreement and cooperate on anti-terrorism operations.
But many, both here and in Thailand, also recognize an underlying tension.
"It's a healthy relationship," said Kasit Piromya, the Thai ambassador to the United States. But, he added, "there are problems on both sides."
Perhaps the biggest sticking point is Myanmar (search). Thailand supports the country's military junta and has welcomed Myanmar's membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The United States, meanwhile, demands that Myanmar restore freedoms lost when the military took power in 1962, and has imposed tough sanctions against the generals.
Thailand's view is that sanctions only make Myanmar's already miserable citizens even worse. Some 1 million refugees have fled into Thailand, Kasit said, bringing disease, drugs and a host of other problems with them.
He noted that the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand all emerged from military rule. "Why can't Burma also come out of this military regime and become like everyone else?" Kasit asked. "We believe in talking to friends and enemies. You've got to talk in order to understand."
Thaksin also faces strong criticism at home, especially for his handling of a bloody Islamic insurgency raging in the south. In an editorial last week, The Nation newspaper called the prime minister a "petty, vindictive and not very well-informed autocratic leader who is enamored of his own sense of grandeur."
Thaksin, critics say, has manipulated news coverage, canceled critical television and radio commentary shows and allowed his political and business allies to take over media companies.
In their letter, the members of Congress blasted Thaksin for issuing "an emergency decree giving himself draconian powers to censor the media, to forcibly move populations, and to command citizens to act in accordance with the government's wishes."
Ambassador Kasit acknowledged the problems but said Thailand's ability to overcome years of petty corruption and military rule to become one of the region's democratic success stories can't be ignored.