Nearly 20 EU ambassadors in Bangkok have confronted the military junta with their fears over the country’s forthcoming referendum on a new constitution.
Thailand has been run by a military government since General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a coup in May 2014.
The junta has promised already-delayed elections for “mid-2017”, following the referendum this summer.
However, the EU is concerned about the sweeping powers the potential constitution will grant to the military, plus restrictions on the rights of free speech and protest and a free media during the campaign.
The delegation of 19 EU ambassadors met with the deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok last week to voice their concerns.
The EU delegation was led by Luisa Ragher, charge d’affairs of the EU, plus ambassadors from 18 member states.
Finland’s ambassador, Kirsti Westphalen – one of those present at the meeting on 7 April – said, “The ambassadors voiced their concerns over the fact that the expression of dissenting opinions is now prohibited.
“[They] requested the Thai military government uphold the principles of freedom of expression and opinion allow all voices to be heard. This is the only way to ensure that the referendum can be considered the result of a free and fair expression of the will of all people of Thailand and to be accepted by them as such.”
The Thai Foreign Ministry said the meeting had been “open, cordial and…constructive” but insisted on making “clarifications” to the European ambassadors.
Thailand has been under the spotlight since the coup which replaced Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra two years ago.
It has seen a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with the EU indefinitely postponed whilst the junta is in power, whilst the EU Commission is debating a total ban on Thai fish imports – one of the country’s biggest industries – over abuses of fish stocks and labour rights among its fleet.
The government in Bangkok has fired back by taking out advertisements this month in magazines such as The Economist, trumpeting their reforms of the fishing sector.
The 19-strong EU delegation raised specific complaints about a new order by the junta, seemingly giving the military sweeping powers.
According to the EU, Order 13/2559 grants even fairly junior military personnel the powers to arrest and hold in detention without a court order, for offences which are “broad and ill-defined.”
This, they say, “increases the risk of arbitrary detentions, breaches the rule of law and deprives citizens of essential legal protection and due judicial process.”
Last month, Professor Peter Leyland, author of The Constitutional System of Thailand: A Contextual Analysis, told EurActiv.com, “Personally, I have very little faith in the constitutional process.
“I’m convinced the draft is not going to count for anything….it’s all being manipulated for their convenience.
“I think they [the junta] are hoping they can string people along. They are calculating that as long as they are promising some kind of referendum on the constitution, that states like the US and Britain and so on will give the benefit of doubt to the regime.
“I think from an international point of view, that’s what their calculation is.”
Westphalen also raised the issue of Thai journalist Pravit Rojanphuk, who had been invited to Helsinki for a UNESCO press freedom conference – but was refused permission to travel by the junta.
The Thai Foreign Ministry (MFA) said the referendum drafting process has been “conducted in an inclusive and open manner” and that the government was “resolute in its goal to restore democracy in Thailand.”
It added that order 13/2559 was there to deal with “influential people” in organised crime such as drugs, people-trafficking and prostitution.
And the MFA said that whilst it attached high importance to freedom of expression and human rights “the government is obliged to maintain public order and prevent social divisiveness during this critical period of national reconciliation and reform.”
The Royal Kingdom of Thailand boasts the world’s longest-reigning monarch, 88-year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the throne 70 years this year.
Modern-day Thai politics was forged in the student uprisings of the 1970s, first in 1973 against the anti-communist military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn, a US ally during the Vietnam war.
His return to the country in 1976 saw renewed student protests, culminating in the Thamassat University massacre, an attack no peaceful demonstrators by the military which saw dozens, possibly over 100, killed. Unlike in 1973, when King Bhumibol had backed the students, scholars point the finger at the monarch for this time ordering the crushing of the revolt.
Experts now believe the military intend to stay in power to oversee a royal succession from the elderly and frail King, to his son - a potentially tinderbox situation as most Thais have lived under no other head of state.
Contemporary Thai politics is split between the Shinawatra dynasty, who have been elected to power twice - first billionaire telecomms tycoon Thaksin (2001-2006), then his sister Yingluck (2011-2014), and frequent returns to military rule. Both were overthrown.
Thaksin is now a fugitive based in Dubai and with question marks over his role in the extra-judicial killing of some 2,000 drug dealers during his rule, whilst Yingluck is under a form of house arrest in Bangkok, facing corruption charges over a rice subsidy scheme, which many outside observers believe is politically-motivated.
Shinawatra supporters, largely peasants and the working classes from the north, wear red shirts, in opposition to the yellow shirts, heavily concentrated in the capital, Bangkok, who prefer the military and the monarchy.
- August 2016: promised date from military junta for a referendum on the draft constitution
- “Mid-2017”: promised date for national elections