Why Thailand is ripe for EU sanctions

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

Arbitrary arrest and other restrictions on freedom of expression have become common place in Thailand. [1000 words/Shutterstock]

The EU has proven itself to be flexible and effective when it comes to imposing sanctions. When it comes to the Thai military junta, the time is nigh for us to put this experience into practice, argues Willy Fautré.

Professor Willy Fautré is the director and co-founder of Human Rights Without Frontiers.

While Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously ruminated that “War is the continuation of politics by other means”, there are of course numerous means to achieving a political end.

While the European Union’s diplomatic efforts to rein in Thailand’s military dictatorship have so far come to nought, Brussels has not exhausted all of the available options. Not only are targeted sanctions against the Bangkok junta a logical next step, but they are both necessary and urgent to prevent Thailand from sinking irretrievably into the darkness of dictatorship.

Moreover, such restrictions stand a real chance of success, as the political and economic stars have aligned to ensure that Thailand is ripe for EU sanctions.

Few can doubt that sanctions are now an entirely justified step. The very basis of Brussels’ sanctions strategy is to pursue the “principles of the Common Foreign and Security Policy” set out by the EU, in which the promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights are core objectives.

Sadly, these universal values on which free society is based are in short supply in Thailand. Since seizing power in May 2014, unseating the country’s democratic leader Yingluck Shinawatra, General Prayuth Chan-ocha has at best treated personal liberties as an unpleasant nuisance. Gatherings of more than five people have been outlawed, opposition activists have been arrested, while criticism of the regime has been steadfastly removed from print and broadcast.

The junta shamelessly admits that it will not even seek a public mandate until late next year at the earliest and the latest draft of a new constitution promises to merely further entrench their rule. Meanwhile, the Thai economy is riddled with naked abuse. The hugely lucrative fishing industry for example is propped up by modern-day slavery.

Not only does this appalling state of affairs demand action, but the EU has exhausted every other possible diplomatic tool. Following the coup, Brussels took the admirable decision to suspend talks on a free trade deal and end official visits to Thailand. The EU made it clear that any relaxation would be dependent on a “roadmap” towards “credible and inclusive elections,” which appear as far away as ever.

In October, the European Parliament overwhelmingly condemned a myriad of abuses at the hands of Bangkok’s generals. Yet, no form of public censure nor display of outrage has moved Prayuth. He has left Brussels with little choice but to choose sanctions.

Of course, Europe’s leaders are under no illusions that targeted sanctions are a silver bullet to end Thai autocracy overnight. However, the EU’s increasingly frequent use of such restrictions over the last two decades means that Brussels has acquired valuable experience in their application. Whether working alongside international partners to resolve international crises such as Iran’s nuclear armament, or individual action to promote democracy in places such as Myanmar, the EU has refined the tool of sanctions.

For example, experience has shown the importance of timing. The more deeply entrenched a dictatorship, the longer the road until sanctions can be said to have a real impact. Decades of authoritarian rule often allow autocrats to mobilise support, rallying around the flag those who have little or no memory of democracy.

For example, EU sanctions were first instituted in Myanmar in 1990, with the country already in the firm grip of generals since the 1960s. Only now is Myanmar beginning to witness the emergence of a workable democracy. By contrast, Thai autocracy is in its infancy and the dream of Thai democracy remains very much alive in the public consciousness. As such, the dictatorship can still be rolled back, a process in which sanctions could be an important rallying point.

Meanwhile, experience also demonstrates that money talks. The absence of any real trade relations is perhaps one reason why restrictions placed by Brussels on Syria and Libya had limited impact. By contrast, Iran’s instant re-engagement with European business after nuclear sanctions were lifted last month reflects the importance Tehran places on trade with Europe.

When it comes to Thailand, Europe is crucial to a teetering economy, as the country’s second largest investor and third most lucrative trade partner. Given time, the leadership, acutely aware of the threat sanctions pose, will likely wean Thailand off too much reliance on European and Western trade. Bangkok is already negotiating a deal to sell $172 million worth of rice to Iran. Consequently, there is little time to lose to make sanctions count.

The timing may be right, but can Brussels tailor-make a sanctions regime to bring about change in Thailand? The EU’s track record resoundingly suggests that it can. When needed, Europe has demonstrated a sharp focus on precision. For example, Myanmar’s democratic emergence is possible in part, because restrictions were carefully targeted almost exclusively at the country’s military hard men, minimising resentment from the population itself.

Equally though, the EU has also applied flexibility when appropriate. Russia has been hit with differing packages of restrictions, one relating to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the other to the destabilisation of the nearby Donbass region. This fluidity allows Brussels to respond to a fluctuating situation appropriately, rewarding or punishing developments as necessary. The EU is more than capable of constructing and delivering a set of targeted, sustainable and effective restrictions to apply real pressure on the Thai regime.

In fact, such restrictions represent a win-win situation. The EU has the opportunity to position itself as an example to the rest of the free world, the spearhead pressing for democracy in a region where freedom cannot be taken for granted. Of course, sanctions can do only unquestionable good for Thailand itself. But the clock is ticking. The further Thailand moves away from its recent democratic past and the less economically reliant it becomes upon Western partners, the more difficult it will be to tackle the despots. The EU possesses considerable sanctions know-how. The time to apply it is now.

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