The EU has extended its ‘yellow card’ warning to Thailand over persistent abuses in its fishing industry.
The decision means the military junta in Bangkok is again one step away from a complete ban on its key fish export sector, worth some $3billion a year.
And, in an unusualy stiffly-worded reprimand, the European Commission states that “ dialogue [with Bangkok] is proving difficult and there remain serious concerns about the steps taken by Thailand to fight IUU fishing activities.”
IUU refers to “illegal, unregulated and unreported” fishing, which harms fish stocks, sustainability and monitoring.
Thailand was placed under a yellow card by the Commission last year, with the threat that without immediate improvements a red card – meaning a total import ban to the EU – would be forthcoming.
Since Christmas, the Thai authorities have made efforts to clean up their fishing fleets’ practices, and monitoring, on the personal orders of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military leader who seized power in a coup in May 2014.
They have also embarked on a PR offensive to improve the sector’s image, with adverts in high-end magazines such as The Economist.
Thursday’s (21 April) decision by the EU executive saw Thailand’s neighbour across the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka, get its yellow card revoked, with the Commission complimenting it on “successfully reforming its governance system.”
Meanwhile Kiribati, Sierra Leone and Trinidad & Tobago were issued with yellow cards.
An inspection team from the EU arrived in Thailand in January to inspect work on the ground – and at sea – on improving monitoring of the country’s fleet, whose main catches and export are tuna and prawns.
Although their findings were not released, it was clearly not enough to have the yellow card lifted, as the Thai authorities has been hoping.
In fact, the EU warns that “further action by the Commission cannot be ruled out”.
And it adds that a further meeting with the Thai authorities in May will prove a “new opportunity to show their good will and commitment”.
In addition to shortcomings in Thailand’s legal framework for sustainable fishing, poor monitoring, control and traceability of catches, the fleet has been accused of severe labour and human rights abuses, up to the point of slave labour, and human trafficking, although these do not directly play into the IUU decision.
The Thai mission to the EU contacted for comment referred EURACTIV.com to a government press release accepting the EU’s decision, and acknowledging that “there remain a number of issues that need to be promptly tackled.”
It added, “Tangible progress has been achieved over the past year, especially in the overhaul of legal and policy frameworks on the Thai fisheries.
“In the spirit of enduring friendship and cooperation between Thailand and the European Union, the Thai Government is committed to sustaining the constructive IUU dialogue with the European Commission in order to realize the shared goal of promoting sustainable fisheries.”
German MEP Barbara Lochbihler, who has campaigned against Thai human rights abuses, welcomed the decision.
Lochbihler, the Green vice-chair of the European Parliament’s human rights committee, said, “The EU has made a very good decision.
“The pressure must continue, since the Thai fleets still do have de facto working slaves and illegal fishing has not ended.
“It would be naïve to believe that such steps are taken voluntarily,” she added, although she praised Bangkok for at least starting the reform process.
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.