Thailand: The military junta answers its critics

Sek Wannamethee [MFA, Thailand]

This article is part of our special report EU-Thailand relations after the coup.

The Thai military junta says it understands European concerns over the constitution drafting underway, but says it intends to restore democracy. “The government has no desire to stay in power longer than necessary,” says Sek Wannamethee.

euractiv.com’s foreign policy reporter Matthew Tempest put the questions raised by our Special Report this week directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok.

Sek Wannamethee, spokesperson for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded.

In May 2014, when the current military regime seized power in a coup, Thailand was poised to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the EU. That has now been suspended indefinitely, and the EU is poised to possibly ban all Thai fish imports – an industry worth some 3 billion dollars – over illegal and unregulated fishing. Does the Thai government take responsibility for the economic uncertainty it has caused during its two years in power?

Indeed, it is a pity that negotiations on the Thai-EU Free Trade Agreement were put on hold.

But this, in fact, did not affect the close trade relations between Thailand and EU countries. According to statistics, trade volume between Thailand and EU for the past two years has shown no sign of stagnation. The EU remains one of our major trade and investment partners.

Ambassadors of EU countries in Thailand continue to engage with the Thai government and express interest in enhancing economic ties with us, especially exploring the possibility of EU countries’ participation in investment projects.

Thailand remains a trustworthy investment destination for European investors. Those who have invested in Thailand show high confidence in the stability and potential of Thailand under the current government. The economic relations between Thailand and the EU have still been very extensive both in terms of trade and investment as confirmed by the European Association for Business and Commerce (EABC) in Thailand. The result of the EABC’s Business Confidence Survey 2015 also shows that the European business community is still optimistic and confident in the Thai economy.  

Our overall economic fundamentals remain strong as reflected through high foreign reserves as well as low unemployment rate. Thailand, in fact, expects that the country’s economy this year can outperform that of last year, as the government promotes 2016 as the year of investment, with stimulus measures and heavy promotion of investment in infrastructure mega-projects. With expected 32.6 million visitors in 2016, tourism will also be another major contributor to boosting confidence of the country and continue to drive our economy forward.

As for the IUU fishing, we recognise that it has been a serious problem for our fisheries industry. In fact, it was also a deep-rooted problem for the past governments, and it is the current government that has stepped up the efforts to root out this problem.

This government has vigorously and seriously pursued an ambitious and comprehensive reform of the fisheries sector, with a view to ensuring sustainable use of marine resources and finding lasting solutions to the deep-rooted problems.

We have revamped the legal and policy frameworks governing fisheries, overhauled the fishing license regime, inspected thousands of vessels and hundreds of seafood processing plants, enhanced the monitoring and control of fishing activities, improved fishing databases and traceability systems, and beefed up law enforcement.

The recent concrete progress in Thailand’s fisheries reform speaks for itself that this government has achieved what the past governments failed to do. In fact, the yellow/red card status is really of secondary importance. Our primary concern is to implement the fisheries in order to create an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible fishing industry.

The military junta has now been in power nearly two years. Already one draft constitution has been scrapped, and the date for possible elections slipped. What guarantee can you give that elections will now take place in mid-2017, as promised?

The constitution drafting process must follow the procedures spelt out in the Interim Constitution. Thailand is fully committed in moving forward according to the announced Roadmap.

However, it is important to ensure that we remedy the wrongs of the past before we embark on the new elections. Therefore, a firm and gradual development is to focus on quality rather than speed so that our country will contribute to a stronger Thailand and restore confidence.

We are currently in phase 2 of the 3-phase Roadmap (Reconciliation – Reform – Elections). The focus now is to undertake comprehensive reform and lay a solid foundation to achieve people-centered and sustainable development, while a new constitution is being drafted.

Our Roadmap outlines clear steps toward a return to democracy. The entire constitution drafting process is expected to take approximately 20-23 months (6 months for the Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) to complete the drafting/ 4 months for a National Referendum/ 6-8 months for implementation of the necessary organic laws/ 4 – 5 months for political campaigns prior to holding a general election).

According to this timeframe, process of general election is then expected to take place in 2017 for a democratically-elected government to assume office.

We understand that friends and allies are concerned with the Roadmap. I would like to reassure that Thailand is firmly moving forward in accordance with the Roadmap. With constant progress and nation-wide reforms taking place, Thailand is continuing our journey towards a strengthened and sustainable democracy.

We ask for time and space to let reconciliation and reforms take their course. Ultimately, sustainable reforms must come from within and for the Thai people themselves.

The current draft constitution has been widely criticised for keeping power with the military regime – an all-appointed Senate, the right to have a non-elected prime minister, immunity for the military, weakening stronger or larger parties, the right for the junta to rule right until a new cabinet is appointed, and other measures. Under these circumstances, can a 2017 election be described as “free and fair”?

The draft constitution which contains 270 sections aims to provide greater guarantee to safeguard the rights of the people and in compliance with international standard. It also aims to provide a system to create a clean and transparent politics with strong checks and balances to promote a fair and just society.

Throughout the drafting process, the CDC has been working in an inclusive manner to ensure that all voices are heard and that people from all walks of life can be actively engaged in the drafting of the constitution. Several seminars and public forums to openly discuss and debate on the draft were held in Bangkok and several provinces around the country with active participation from academicians, public and private sectors and NGOs.

The CDC will deliberate and revise the draft based on the recommendations so received. The final draft will be completed by April 2016 before being forwarded to the Election Commission for a national referendum which is scheduled to be held in August 2016.

It is important to note that the draft is now being debated and revised based on the recommendations gathered from the public and relevant sectors. Therefore, none of the content in this draft is yet final.

In short, what is envisioned in this draft is an attempt to develop a sustainable democracy with effective checks and balances that seek to empower the people, promote good governance, manage political disagreements and ensure transparency and accountability. All of which are integral and imperative elements for free and fair elections.

More importantly, it is hoped that the new Constitution will bring about a paradigm shift and lay a solid foundation for Thailand’s future based on a fair, transparent and pluralistic political system and strong but sustainable economic growth.

The European Parliament has severely criticised the military regime over its human rights record, with journalists being sent for “attitude adjustment”, academics and their families harassed for criticising the military, and activists prosecuted for exposing labour abuses in the Thai fruit industry. Is this a record the military junta can be proud of, as it tries to seek international credibility?

The Government fully respects freedom of expression and believes it is a basic foundation of a democratic society. However, it is obliged to strike the right balance between freedom of the press and the interest of society.

Media outlets are allowed to broadcast and report their views freely. Only minimal and necessary limitations on the media and social platforms are put in place to prevent further disruption and preempt efforts to instigate violent incidents, stoke social divisiveness or create hatred among the people during this crucial period of national reform and reconciliation towards a sustainable democracy and social harmony.

With regards to an activist allegedly “prosecuted for exposing labour abuses in the Thai fruit industry”, it must be stressed that Thai judicial system adheres to the utmost integrity and its independence from political intervention. The trials were initiated by a private entity against another private entity and, contrary to the general belief, government authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General, are not in the position to intervene in the judicial process. Even in criminal cases where public prosecutors represent one side of the parties, public prosecutors as officers of the law act solely on facts and merits of the cases.

A prime example of the independence of the Thai judicial system is the case against Phuketwan. On 1 September 2015, the Phuket Provincial Court dismissed a criminal defamation case and a case involved a breach of the Computer Crime Act brought on by the Royal Thai Navy against 2 Phuketwan journalists, despite similar concerns from the civil society and the media.   

Many outside observers believe the military regime intends to stay in power to oversee a royal succession, when the current 88-year old king passes away. Can you deny this allegation?

This allegation is misguided.  The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) took control of national administration in order to provide a cooling-off period for all sides of the political conflict, with the purpose of preventing further violence, restoring stability and putting the country back on track towards full democracy.

It is not associated to the issue of royal succession. There are clearly stipulated rules and procedures on this matter. Both the Palace Law on Succession and the remaining section of the Thai constitution would ensure a smooth transition, should the need ever arise.  The royal succession is, therefore, not an issue in Thailand and any attempts to politicize the monarchy should be resisted.

The deposed, democratically-elected prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has been barred from traveling to Brussels to meet EU officials. She now faces a trial for corruption over a rice subsidy scheme which many observers believe is politically-motivated. Can you confirm that the military government has no influence on her trial and the judicial system is independent?

The trial is not politically motivated but was a result of a violation of Thailand’s Criminal Code. Yingluck Shinawatra has been charged with dereliction of duty causing damage and failure to perform her duty as a state official to stop corruption in the rice-pledging scheme. The rice-pledging scheme has seen unprecedented policy-level corruption. A legal process is being carried out against wrongdoers including former politicians and public officers involved in the case.

Thai Courts maintain and uphold their fundamental principle of judicial impartiality. The decision to prohibit Yingluck Shinawatra from traveling abroad is solely under the discretion of the Court. The court performs its judicial function independently; the government has no influence on this or any other trials whatsoever.  

Finally, the world community, from President Obama to the EU, has been united in calling for a return to civilian rule in Thailand. On what basis does the military junta continue to claim legitimacy?

The present government has very clear mandates: 1) to set out a Roadmap towards democracy and elections; and 2) to undertake undertaking necessary reforms for the country’s future.

The government has no desire to stay in power longer than necessary. Thailand is committed to a fully functioning democratic system of governance. This government is determined to move forward in accordance with the Roadmap.

Our Roadmap outlines clear steps toward a return to democracy. The entire constitution drafting process is expected to take approximately 20-23 months, a process which I outlined above. According to this timeframe, process of general election is then expected to take place in 2017 for a democratically-elected government to assume office. The goal is a sustainable democracy that meets the aspirations of the Thai people.

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