BANGKOK, Thailand -- Human Rights Watch, political analysts and others
are criticizing President Obama for inviting Bangkok's coup leader to
an ASEAN summit in California on February 15 amid expectations the
junta will display it as U.S. endorsement of the military regime.

Indicative of that support, the Pentagon will simultaneously train the
junta's troops for 11 days here in Thailand during February to ensure
"stability within the region."

All 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- which
includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the
Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- received invitations
to the February 15-16 U.S.-ASEAN Summit at Sunnylands in Rancho
Mirage, California.

Most of the leaders arrived alongside Prime Minister Prayuth
Chan-ocha, who seized power in a bloodless May 2014 coup.

"We advised the White House to rescind invitations to Prime Minister
Prayuth and [Cambodian] Prime Minister Hun Sen," said Human Rights
Watch's Washington-based Asia Policy Director John Sifton.

"They responded by citing the principle of ASEAN unity, arguing that
if they disinvited any of the leaders, the rest would not come,"
Sifton said in an e-mail interview on February 3.

"Since then, rather than continue to insist on rescinding the
invitations, we have urged the White House to demarche Thailand on key
human rights issues, like dropping politically motivated prosecutions
and ending the use of military courts, ahead of the summit, and we
urge them to speak publicly about Thailand's human rights situation
during the summit, to create pressure on Prayuth to ease up on his
crackdown," he said.

"Pro-democracy Thais should be asking the White House how this
invitation will be used to advance the cause of democracy in
Thailand," Sifton said.

Thailand "has recently experienced, arguably, the largest democratic
movement in the country's history," said David Streckfuss, 56, a
respected commentator and historian of Thai politics.

Streckfuss was referring to 21st century elections which brought
popular leaders into power and predominately peaceful supporters into
the streets -- plus some who fought, killed or died -- defending their
right to vote and various policies.

"To invite personally the leader [Prayuth] who brought it all to an
end, is like a kick in the face," said Streckfuss, an American based
in Thailand for more than 25 years.

"I would expect, if not some strong objections by pro-democracy Thais,
then at least widespread disappointment," he said in an e-mail
interview on February 2.

"The regime is starved for international recognition, and this
invitation might be perceived by both the government's supporters and
opponents as one more step toward greater international acceptance,"
Streckfuss said.

"I object to Prayuth being invited to the U.S.-ASEAN Summit," said
Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai Marxist activist and author self-exiled in
England to avoid arrest for speaking against the authorities.

"The junta and its supporters will jump at the chance to claim that
the international community accepts the regime, and the Thai media
will delight in showing clips of Prayuth arrogantly strutting around
the meeting," Giles said in an e-mail interview on February 3.

"Who wants to stage a coup against me? Raise your hands," a typically
moody, confrontational Prayuth said on January 27 while presiding over
a military ceremony near Bangkok.

Prayuth, a former army chief, warned soldiers about unidentified
people "trying to weaken the military."

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies said on January 28 he did not
expect strong objections by pro-democracy Thais to Obama's invitation.

The U.S. envoy said he also did not expect Prayuth's opponents to
perceive the invitation as a shift away from U.S. criticism of the
coup and the junta's regime.

Ambassador Davies made the remarks during a brief informal interview
inside the ornate Grand Palace while attending a black-tie royal
function alongside other diplomats and officials, hosted by one of
King Bhumibol Adulyadej's daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Thai guests included Prayuth and Defense Minister Gen. Prawit
Wongsuwon, plus former Gen. Surayud Chulanont who led a previous 2006
coup in which Prayuth also participated.

The U.S.-ASEAN Summit comes during regional concerns over indigenous
Islamist guerrillas in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, and
their possible links with the Middle East's Islamic State insurgents.

China's expanding presence in the contested South China Sea,
international economic trade issues, and ASEAN's integration as a
potential political and economic bloc are also expected to be
addressed at the summit.

"This unprecedented gathering [is] the first hosted by the United
States with the ASEAN leaders," the White House said on December 30.

Thailand is a key non-NATO ally of the U.S. in Asia.

Both governments enjoy tight links -- especially military and police
relations -- despite public snubs.

Thailand is hosting the Pentagon's annual, multilateral Cobra Gold
military exercise which includes more than two dozen nations on
February 9-19.

The junta's military will be enhanced by Cobra Gold which, according
to the U.S. Marines' website, is an exercise promoting "stability
within the region."

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives held its
annual training for Southeast Asian police in Thailand during January,
focusing on improvised explosive devices and other threats.

The Pentagon's 7th Fleet meanwhile uses this country's facilities near
Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand and on Phuket island along the Andaman

For example, the Fleet's littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth -- which
can be configured for surface warfare, mine countermeasures or
anti-submarine warfare -- arrived in Phuket on December 30 on a
scheduled visit after patrolling the South China Sea near the
contested Spratly Islands.

On December 16, Prayuth's junta agreed to a Joint Statement on the
Fifth Thailand-United States Strategic Dialogue "ensuring maritime
security and safety, and freedom of navigation, including in and
over-flight above the South China Sea."

Ambassador Davies said Bangkok is neutral in the South China Sea
dispute between the U.S. and China, because Thailand's coastline does
not touch that zone.

Washington suspended about five million dollars in military and other
aid immediately after the coup, and the State Department publicly
criticizes Prayuth's regime.

"We remain concerned by continued limitations on human rights and
fundamental freedoms in Thailand, including undue restrictions on
freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," State Department Deputy
Spokesman Mark C. Toner said on January 20.

"Thailand's men in uniform bark at their citizens daily to stay quiet,
unless they want indefinite junta rule," Bangkok Post columnist Achara
Ashayagachat wrote on February 1.

Prayuth's coup toppled the remnants of popularly elected Prime
Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government.

Unsurprisingly, some anti-Yingluck politicians welcome Obama's invitation.

"I support it [Obama's invitation] obviously, because it is always
useful for engaging, no matter what type of a regime," said Kraisak
Choonhavan, a former senator and former Democrat Party deputy leader.

"Maybe some narrow-minded" opponents of Prayuth will criticize the
visit, "but they should not complain," Kraisak said in a telephone
interview on February 3.

"Prayuth will obviously benefit because of the photo-ops with the most
powerful country in the world, an image that he has been striving for
since taking power," he said.

"I don't think Obama supports Prayuth," Kraisak said, but regional
issues require U.S.-Thai relations be maintained.

Prayuth said he clamped this Buddhist-majority country of 67 million
people under his control to tackle corruption and political chaos.

His junta puts dissidents on trial in Bangkok's Military Court instead
of civilian courts, and either jails people, threatens to freeze their
bank accounts and ban them from leaving the country, or forces them
into military re-education camps for several days.

More than 1,400 civilians were put on trial in the Military Court
during 2015, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Opponents, mostly students, have been busted for defying the regime by
displaying the three-finger salute popularized by "The Hunger Games"
Hollywood film series, reading George Orwell's "1984" novel in public,
eating sandwiches outdoors and other imaginative, coded, intentionally
provocative behavior.

The previous 2006 coup ousted Yingluck's elder brother, former Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The popular siblings have declined to rouse supporters against
Prayuth, and are perceived as more concerned with their personal legal

Yingluck is defending herself against charges that she was "negligent"
during her administration's questionable rice crop subsidies, and
other policies.

Thaksin fled abroad and was tried in absentia for corruption committed
during his administration, and is dodging a two-year jail sentence.

In January, his office sent Bangkok's journalists a 279-page coffee
table book titled, "Thaksin Shinawatra: Life & Times" which
exaggerated his often brutal accomplishments and airbrushed his

Thaksin's outspoken son Panthongtae Shinawatra faces separate
allegations of corruption over his own finances.

All three people deny wrongdoing and insist they are politically persecuted.

Meanwhile, Prayuth will be scrutinized for his statements and behavior
in California.

When a proud Prayuth met Obama on September 29 at the United Nations
in New York, gossip splashed across Thailand's media.

Some Thais wrongly claimed U.S. officials did not authorize
publication of a photograph of the two leaders shaking hands, and
catty doubts arose over Obama's enthusiasm while greeting the coup