EU must speak up to thwart Thailand’s backdoor dictatorship

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

Military coup in Thailand. [John Berns/Flickr]

General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military coup in May 2014 quite rightly sparked deep concerns in Brussels. To its credit, the European Union acted swiftly with punitive measures, but the junta’s latest attempts at constitutional reform pose a long-term threat that must be addressed, argues Aron Shaviv. 

Aron Shaviv is CEO of Shaviv Strategy and Campaigns.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military coup in May 2014 quite rightly sparked deep concerns in Brussels. And to its credit, the European Union (EU) acted swiftly, imposing punitive measures until the junta return constitutional rule and democratic norms to Thailand. Since then, General Prayuth’s regime has not only thumbed its nose at the EU’s demands, but by instituting measures masquerading as reforms, it has sought to further entrench its own autocratic rule. Left to their own devices, Prayuth and his henchmen appear dedicated to shifting the country further and further from the democratic rule Thai citizens expect and deserve. Europe well knows the dangers posed by military strongmen who brush aside democracy in the “national interest”. Europe must now be prepared to act boldly. A strong EU stance would help quell the ambitions of Thailand’s military rulers while simultaneously positioning Brussels as a guardian of global democracy.

And the EU should not underestimate the influence and impact it can have on Bangkok. The EU is Thailand’s third largest trading partner and its second biggest investor. General Prayuth himself has personally appealed to European investors to maintain healthy trade relations, insisting that his power grab was merely a benevolent act. Earlier this month, Prayuth’s second in command, General Prawit was quick to give assurances that his government would comply with EU regulations on human trafficking after concerns were raised regarding Thailand’s lucrative fishing industry. Meanwhile, one of the country’s leading food producers recently announced plans to expand European exports. The European market is manifestly an important factor in Thailand’s economic ambitions. In short, Bangkok needs Europe.

And at the same time as looking to capitalise on the riches Europe has to offer, General Prayuth’s government is slowly but surely eroding the very basic tenets of Thailand’s democratic structure. Most alarmingly perhaps is the new constitution being proposed by Prayuth’s regime. The charter includes a provision allowing a non-elected official to assume the role of prime minister in times of crisis. The dangers posed to freedom do not need to be spelled out when autocrats brush aside the fundamental principles of democracy in the name of “national emergency,” “public order” and “crisis measures”. Should such a constitution be allowed to bypass the notion of an elected head of government, it would make a mockery of the very democratic checks and balances it is supposed to protect.

The proposed charter also suggests that the 200-member Senate should be nominated, and not subject to any electoral process whatsoever. And to help promote this thoroughly anti-democratic measure, the junta has enlisted the judiciary, sullying the very bedrock of democracy. The regime’s National Anti-Corruption Commission (NAAC) recently ruled that 250-former MPs allied to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had unlawfully attempted to amend the constitution. Their alleged crime? A proposed constitutional change which would have made the Senate fully rather than only partially elected, opening it up to popular representation. The NAAC’s ruling is not only an affront to the voting public, it is a naked attempt to solidify Prayuth’s rule and further denigrate the Shinawatra family, whose members have won each of the country’s elections since 2001. Inverting reality, the NAAC has accused the lawmakers, rather than the junta, of misusing authority. In the spirit of so many of history’s autocratic rulers, Thailand’s government is falsely, yet determinedly demonising its democratically-elected opponents as a threat to the national interest.        

As for Yingluck Shinawatra herself, Thailand’s elected head of government, she too is being targeted. In an attempt to silence and criminalise Shinawatra, she has recently been accused of corruption in the most spurious fashion possible, contrary to all judicial and political norms. Prosecutors have ordered that she stand trial over a scheme which regulated rice prices in Thailand’s poor rural regions. Facing charges including “abuse of authority,” Shinawatra is essentially being accused of corruption through policy. No matter that it was a policy agreed upon by an elected government, authorised via a legislature chosen by the people. Without evidence of any actual corruption, the military regime’s claims against Shinawatra are trumped up in the extreme. The junta has created a fictional notion whereby the legislative process itself can be deemed corrupt, solely in the pursuit of preserving its own power.

The time has come for the EU to raise its voice once again. Brussels commendably expressed concern when the generals initially seized power. Yet European worries have been entirely ignored as Thailand slides further into dictatorship. Bangkok’s regime consistently blurs the lines between democracy and dictatorship by abusing the tools of freedom to further entrench its own authoritarian rule. The generals have pledged elections in 2016, once a new constitution is approved. But if they have their way, the very document meant to enshrine the country’s democracy will be used to legalise autocracy. One can only assume that subsequent elections would be a sham. Brussels must draw a line in the sand. Europe must ensure that the new constitution does not pass in its present form and that relations with Thailand are not normalised until normative democracy is assured. Such a basic standard must become a fundamental pre-requisite for tapping into Europe’s economic strength. Starting now, in Thailand.

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