EU shouldn’t turn a blind eye to Thailand’s duplicitous dictators

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Prayuth Chan-ocha. [Wikipedia]

The EU turns a blind eye when dictators operate a subtle form of authoritarian rule in which the oppression remains under-the-surface, although it is prevailing, writes Charles Tannock.

Dr. Charles Tannock is a Member of the European Parliament for London, and Conservative Party member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the European Parliament.

The minds of European leaders are rightly occupied with how best to tackle the tide of migration which the continent now faces. Debate rages over how many Syrian refugees can be accommodated. However, Europe’s decision-makers must also take a step back from the tragic humanitarian fall-out from Syria’s oppression and terror. The fight against despotism does not exist in isolation – It has many faces and reaches far beyond the rapidly vanishing borders of the Middle East. The European Union must be prepared to take an equally decisive stance elsewhere. None more so than in Thailand, where you will find little sign of naked brutality and few images of innate suffering. Bangkok’s military rulers operate a more subtle form of authoritarian rule where under-the-surface oppression prevails. This ‘soft’ despotism is designed to evade global attention. But the world must not be deceived. Bangkok’s strongmen threaten freedom in Thailand and beyond.

None other than the former exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra himself mercifully so far have been made refugees and no bloody massacres have been committed since General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power from his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s democratically-elected leader in May 2014. Although this military junta wears different clothes to the Assad regime in Syria, the impact on Thailand’s democracy has been devastating. Prayuth and his fellow generals have slowly but surely eroded democratic norms. One of the generals’ first acts was to ban gatherings of more than five people, effectively banning the freedom of assembly and striking a lethal blow towards organised opposition. Freedom of speech has also fallen casualty to the cull on liberty, thanks to the ruthless application of Thailand’s rarely-used laws protecting the revered royal family from defamation. While just two such cases existed prior to the coup, current prosecutions now amount to at least 50, often deliberately targeting regime critics.

This perversion of the justice system is just one example of the Bangkok generals’ preference for abusing the tools of power over cruder physical brutality. It is a hallmark of their rule which keeps the slow death of Thai democracy away from the limelight. In another breath-taking inversion of democratic values, 240 lawmakers affiliated with Shinawatra, were accused of unlawful “unconstitutional” behaviour. Their crime? Support for a constitutional amendment which would have seen parliament’s upper chamber fully elected.   

And so it is no surprise perhaps that the constitution has now taken centre stage in the generals’ campaign of deception. The junta-appointed Constitutional Draft Committee began work on a new charter in November 2014 and recently presented the sum total of its work. It amounts to little more than codifying and legitimising the military’s continuing grip on power. It allows the appointment of an entirely unelected head of government, such as Prayuth, while the Senate would effectively be hand-picked by the generals. Most worryingly of all perhaps, the draft constitution would permit the establishment of a National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee, which could assume power in times of undefined ‘crisis.’ And to top off the power grab, Section 111 (15) bizarrely excludes the “unusually rich” from office, a thinly veiled ban aimed specifically at Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin.

Given that the junta-appointed committee drafted a charter enshrining the junta’s power, the junta-sponsored National Reform Council (NRC) was widely expected to give the new constitution a resounding green light. However, the NRC voted last week to reject the charter by 135 votes to 105 with seven abstentions. A late, if surprising reprieve for democracy you may think? Not a bit of it. In fact, it is a deliberate clever junta ruse. The constitution will need to be re-drafted once again. Ostensibly, Prayuth and his generals appear eager to iron out the wrinkles of a flawed document, apparently troubled over its implications on the rule of law. The delay gives a façade of concern for the democratic process. In reality, it is another downgrade of the existing constitutional provisions to safeguard freedom and democracy.

Prayuth has not yet sought a popular mandate. He has insisted that a new constitution must be a precursor to an election – all in the supposed interests of national ‘stability’ of course. And so the delayed constitution means quite simply delayed elections. Regime officials had originally promised a poll in early 2016, which Prayuth himself admitted in May would be held in August or September 2016 “at the earliest.” In the wake of the NRC’s rejection of the draft constitution, Prayuth’s deputy, Wissanu Krea-ngam has now set out a timetable for elections in May 2017, a full three years after unlawfully snatching power. The regime’s persistent obfuscation throws into doubt whether a free and fair election will ever in fact take place. And in the meantime, the generals will pay lip service to democracy, endlessly tinkering with a constitution for as long as deemed necessary. The end result is a double blow to democracy, with elections out of sight and a constitution which will eventually further entrench military rule. 

Europe should be concerned. Not only for the sake of Thailand, but for the wider region. Democracy is a fragile commodity in South East Asia. Although the likes of Indonesia and Philippines can boast democratic norms, Vietnam remains an autocratic one-party state, while Myanmar may yet haul itself out from the darkness of despotism. Meanwhile, Thailand, an important component in the regional balance of power, stands on the precipice. Only international pressure is likely to convince the Bangkok strongmen leadership to pull back from the edge of a dictatorial abyss.

Fortunately, Europe is well positioned to play an influential role. Thailand is not merely a tourist hot-spot for Europeans. Europe is Thailand’s second largest investor and third biggest trade partner. Moreover, the Thai economy is experiencing an alarming downturn, with exports wilting and GDP forecasts plummeting. The Prayuth regime can hardly afford to lose favour in affluent Europe. While Europe’s economic prosperity remains the magnet which draws refugees and desperate migrants globally, these same riches can also be wielded to guard democracy elsewhere in the world. The time has come for Europe to turn Thailand’s economic screws and hand democracy the chance to flourish. 

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