The EU’s reaction to the military coup in Thailand is arguably the first time the EU has taken the global lead in a foreign-policy crisis, with the rest of the world taking cue and following suit. Measures have included sanctions, an indefinite postponement of trade talks, a moratorium on signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, suspension of official visits and a review of military ties.
To underscore the impact of these measures, coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha dedicated his very first public event as Thailand’s newly installed ‘civilian’ Prime Minister to courting European business and investment. Speaking before the Thai-European Business Association (TEBA) he vowed he is “prepared to do everything. Just show me your investment roadmap.”
And therein lies the challenge for the EU and its new Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini. One of the repeated patterns of the EU is a tendency to adopt a dichotomous, black and white world-view. Just like General Prayuth has exchanged his military uniform for an expensive Italian suit, so will this regime continue to blur the lines between democracy and dictatorship in an effort to win legitimacy from the EU and the wider international community.
One might think the EU would be quite adept at knowing a dictatorship when it sees one – all but three EU Member States have been subject to a dictatorship within the last century. Their individual and collective emergence from these dictatorships into liberal electoral democracies are the very foundation of the Union.
This, paradoxically, will be the crux of the EU’s dilemma. Over the next 12 months Thailand’s new legislature – appointed by the military – is tasked with drafting a new constitution. The new constitution will supposedly put an end to the political crisis which triggered the violent political crisis last winter which served as the pretext for the coup. Under the auspices of the new constitution, the military regime will step down and elections will be held, hailing in a renewed era of democracy for Thailand. The EU will be expected to endorse these elections and normalize relations with Thailand, with the expectation that the rest of the world will follow. After all, dictatorship is bad, elections are good, right?
Wrong. For buried deep within the new constitution there will lie a clause, an article, a tiny, seemingly insignificant footnote which will impale the EU’s moral and democratic resolve. Unlike other military coups around the world, and indeed previous military coups in Thailand, this coup is only a means to an end, not an end unto itself. From the very start of the political crisis in Thailand last year, there has only ever been one, clear, undeniable goal: To bar the Shinawatra family from power, forever. In fact, the campaign to oust the Shinawtra family from power can be traced back to 2006, when Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra – a democratically elected Prime Minister – was overthrown by a military coup while attending the UN General Assembly. But the last card had not been dealt: His younger sister, Yingluck, returned their Pheu Thai Party (PTP) to power in 2011, winning the elections by a 13% margin.
PTP’s electoral power base lies in the populous, yet relatively poorer North and North-Eastern agricultural regions. Some of their flagship policies include free universal healthcare coverage, first apartment and first car subsidies and a high-speed rail infrastructure project. These populist policies ensure PTP electoral dominance over the relatively better-off South and affluent Bangkok, much to the chagrin of the elites – including the military. Thus, undoubtedly, the next elections to be held under a new constitution will be free and fair in terms of who is allowed to vote. But they will not be free or fair in terms of who is allowed to run, in terms of whom may be elected or in terms of who may be represented. PTP and the Shinawatra family, along with the underprivileged majority of Thai citizens, will be written out of the democratic framework.
Surely Thailand will not be top priority for Mogherini and her team. She will be most visibly tested in the Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia and in the Middle East. But a time will come where the EU will be tested in Thailand – we can only wait and see if it cares enough to notice.