Thailand – will diplomacy work?

If it weren’t so sad, the state of affairs in Thailand following the May 2014 coup would be laughable. As Thailand inches its way to becoming a pariah state – not unlike North Korea - little is being done to halt what, to all appearances, is rapidly becoming an Orwellian nightmare.

Order 13 – formalizes penalties for imagined threats

Immediately after the overthrow of Thailand’s last democratically-elected Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, the military junta government under the leadership of general Prayuth Chan-o-cha proceeded to tear at the country’s democratic ideals by doing away with any semblance of the rule of law. Nominally, the interim government was supposed to organize elections by the end of 2014, a promise that was nevertheless broken repeatedly as the date was pushed back to 2015, 2016 and now to 2017.

Such an overextended stay in power has not been easy to achieve, and the junta can boast a long list of human rights abuses, ranging from the banal (stifling press freedoms) to the Manchurian (forced reeducation programs for critics). For its latest dirty trick, the junta invented a few new offenses and provided for them under something called Order 13 - created under the laughable guise of protecting the public.

In the run up to the passing of Order 13, the junta had banned several innocuous activities, such as public gatherings of more than five people, the eating of sandwiches in public and the three-finger salute from the movie “Hunger Games”, all seen as seditious gestures. And should you be a hapless citizen unlucky enough to be caught, you run the risk of being sent to an “attitude adjustment camp”, a poorly used synecdoche meant to disguise acts of torture. Which is where Order 13 comes into play. The April decision conferred broad and sweeping policing powers on military officers with ranks as low as sub-lieutenant. According to junta spokesman, Colonel Piyapong Klinphan, the order was implemented to prevent crimes that pose a danger to public order, and includes the authority to seize assets without warrants, suspend financial transactions and ban anyone from travelling abroad.

Shortly after the order was announced, “journalist non grata”, Pravit Rojanaphruk was denied permission to travel to Helsinki to attend the World Press Freedom Day organized by UNESCO. According to Klinphan, the reason for detaining the reporter was simply that he was attacking the junta on social media. Other journalists critical of the junta have been threatened with prison or even execution, and a liberal use of the lese majeste laws has seen people accused of defaming the royal dog, a charge that carries a 15-year prison sentence.

And given the contents of the draft constitution, due to be voted upon in August, which awards even more powers to the military in what can be seen as a legal codification of the current undemocratic regime. The 250-strong senate will be appointed by the military and will have wide sweeping powers to block legislation, appoint the constitutional court and even bring in an unelected Prime Minister if general elections are inconclusive. The charter has been attacked by human rights groups and by Thai politicians. Former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra has called it a “charade” that will make Thailand look like Myanmar before political reforms.

Under the rudderless rule of the junta, Thailand is clearly a runaway train. Can international diplomatic efforts save the country from becoming Southeast Asia’s next North Korea? Sadly, not really.

The most common words being used by both the US and the European Union as they scold Prayuth are express concern and urge. It’s not hard to understand why the interim Prime Minister ignores the reaction of the rest of the world to his draconian penalties for relatively innocuous behavior. In his Guardian op-ed, muzzled reporter Pravit Rojanaphruk speculates that since Prayuth wasn’t elected, he feels he doesn't have to please anyone, giving him free rein.

Immediately following the May 2014 coup, the brain trust behind the EU in Brussels stopped official visits and suspended free trade talks - hardly anything that would cause Prayuth to fret. Economic sanctions, or rather the threat of economic sanctions has done little but evoke a chuckle from Prayuth. Despite pressures from the European Parliament and other civil rights groups at the industrial scale slave labor in the fishery industry has taken, the European Commission stopped short of banning the imports of Thai, content with issuing yet another stern warning. Had the ban been passed, the Thai economy would have received a painful body blow that could have prompted Prayuth and his general colleagues to tone down their acts of violence.

For their part, the US has not done much more than their counterparts in Brussels – freezing military aid and issuing stern warnings has been the bulk of it. When the US ambassador to Bangkok bemoaned the state of human rights in the country, the junta opened an official investigation on lese majeste charges. Washington’s reaction was more silence.

So given all of the above – will diplomacy work?

There are two problems – the first being that the EU/US does not seem to have the political will, or even the genuine interest, to tick off a strategic Pacific ally. It would be foolhardy of the Thai people to expect much more than what has been seen over the past two years. The second problem stems from the nature of the Thai people themselves. Having been through similar scenarios over a dozen times in the past nine decades, allowing the military to overthrow an elected government has become ”the new normal”.

Thailand is shaping up to be a case study in the limits of diplomatic solutions in an age when growing interdependencies and geopolitical interests dwarf the imperative of upholding human rights. Short of being subjected to international sanctions, Thailand’s return to democracy is postponed indefinitely.

More in this category: ASEAN – A Pacific NATO? »

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