Jul 3, 2014

Thailand - Thailand's relations with key Western allies remain strained

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More than a month has passed since the coup to topple an elected government and reactions from the international community - mostly Western allies - remain strong.

The United States, the European Union and Australia have imposed measures to show their disapproval of the coup and continue reviewing whether to impose more measures to mount pressure on the junta.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta calls itself, anticipated this reaction from Western countries but underestimated the pressure. It had hoped that explanations of the circumstances surrounding the deep political divide given by Foreign Ministry officials and embassies around the globe would convince the international community that intervention was necessary. But it appears not.

"We are invited to attend the briefings by the military on the situation and its plans from time to time since the coup, but that is what the junta wanted us to know while many questions remain unclear," said a diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

US State Department deputy assistant secretary Scot Marciel testified at Congress's committee on foreign affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific last week that the junta did not show signs of wanting to restore democracy in the short term.

"Recent events have shown that the current military coup is both more repressive and likely to last longer than the last one," he said.

What the junta has done and promised is not convincing enough for the US, the EU and our shared Western allies to be confident that democracy will return to the country quickly and firmly.

The junta said it would have a provisional charter implemented by July before appointing the members of a national assembly. It said it could have an interim government by September or sooner, and has laid out a vague timeline for elections within approximately 15 months.

The NCPO said it planned to reduce conflict and partisanship within society in order to pave the way for a more harmonious political environment when civilians return to control.

The junta has removed many officials, who were mostly appointed by the previous government, from their positions at state-owned enterprises and government agencies to make sure that its men would secure it power during the interim government.

The summoning of people to report to the junta has likely stopped but many activists and academic are being prosecuted in the military court. The media still faces restrictions.

"We do not see, however, how the coup and subsequent repressive actions will produce the political compromise and reconciliation that Thailand so desperately needs," senior US diplomat Marciel said.

"We do not believe that true reconciliation can come about through fear of repression."

What Marciel presented in his testimony is not his personal view but the laying down fundamental US foreign policy towards Thailand.

Political conflict in Thailand did not happen shortly before the coup, but was rooted deep since the previous coup in 2006 toppled then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the elder brother of the recently ousted former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

According to many US officials, Washington under the Democrat-run administration consistently stresses its support for democratic principles and a commitment to relationship with Thailand without taking sides.

The EU took the same stance, halting cooperation and official visits to Thailand as well as recommending its member nations review their military cooperation with the Kingdom. If the junta imposes more restrictions on human rights and freedom, the EU and its members will introduce more measures.

Thailand has to be concerned how the EU will treat it at the coming Asean-EU meeting. Will Thailand's representatives be allowed to participate in the meeting, which will be held in Europe this year?

The junta's strategy on foreign relations is to beg for more understanding from Western allies while getting closer to countries in Asia, notably China and Asean, in order to have their support.

Foreign Ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow, who is also acting Foreign Minister, will visit Cambodia and China in July to explain the latest developments in the country. China has expressed its understanding and will continue relations as usual.

For Cambodia, the matter is a little bit more complicated after about 200,000 Cambodian workers returned home in the wake of rumours of a crackdown on migrant workers in Thailand.

Sihasak will meet with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in Phnom Penh tomorrow and Wednesday to discuss the matter.

The Foreign Ministry earlier asked cooperation from Phnom Penh to monitor Thai dissidents who might move against the junta from Cambodia, suggesting the mission for the ministry was a hunting expedition.

Supalak Ganjanakhundee

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