SINGAPORE – The recent military coup in Thailand that ousted the government of Yingluck Shinawatra has attracted concern and controversy. Very visibly the United States, the European Union and Australia have criticized the situation, called for elections to be held as soon as possible, and imposed measures to express their disapproval. Others have been quieter, notably the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China.
From the U.S., high-level criticism came from Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Americans suspended almost one-third of its $3.5 million in military aid. This is a significant signal, given that Thailand is a strategic non-NATO ally.
The Europeans suspended official visits to the country as well as the broad Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, while Australia downgraded diplomatic and military ties. Much of this is to be expected.
Western powers often champion their “values,” despite the reality that the U.S. has coexisted and assisted nondemocratic regimes and even dictatorships when it felt this was necessary.
The reaction among ASEAN neighbors has generally been more understanding. Most regard the events as an internal matter and none have imposed sanctions. Noninterference is a long held principle for the group.
The previous coup of 2006 did, however, provoke more questioning. Moreover, the ASEAN Charter, adopted in 2008, enshrines principles of democracy and constitutional government. When they met shortly before the coup, ASEAN ministers had expressed concern over the tensions.
ASEAN’s position was, as such, not automatic. Concerns and options have been weighed, and the factors considered may be relevant to others.
First, there is no illusion that it is easy to establish practical ground rules without setbacks and they will be cautious about casting the first stone. This is especially when the intervention happened after months of protest and intransigence that had made the country almost ungovernable. All the while, the economy dipped sharply.
Second, although democratic principles are preferred, most in ASEAN will wait to see how the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) performs. Past military interventions in Thailand have been relatively brief, and the NCPO aims to establish a Cabinet shortly and then work to bring back stability and economic growth. If that can be done and the country returned in short order to elected government under a reformed constitution, many will feel the intervention was not without benefits.
While there have been small and sporadic protests, a July survey shows that almost 80 percent across the country accept that the NCPO should oversee the reform process. More than two-thirds of Thais surveyed also report they are happier now than before the intervention. Business confidence has also bounced back somewhat.
A third factor is Thailand’s regional role. It is the region’s second largest economy and a key actor in ASEAN’s plan for economic integration by 2015. The country is also a significant political player and coordinator for the group’s dialogue with China during this time of sensitivity over maritime claims. The country is well-poised in this role — as a nonclaimant in the dispute, an ally of the U.S., a destination for Japanese investments and a friend to China. There is a need to help maintain that balance.
In this coup, China’s already considerable influence could increase further. Thailand’s military leadership visited Beijing in June to consult on closer cooperation, and Thailand is reported to have approved a $23 billion transport project linking up two high-speed railways directly with China by 2021.
In contrast, there are newspaper reports suggesting that the U.S. has yet to decide whether it would want to go ahead with Operation Cobra Gold, key regional military exercises hosted by Thailand. There may be no immediate danger of pushing Bangkok into China’s sphere if Washington, as expected, preaches democracy, but if Western condemnation and sanctions harshen, that is not impossible. Democratic preaching and sanctions, after all, led Myanmar down that path until that country’s recent and dramatic opening.
Even if principle must be upheld, perhaps Japan’s position may suit. The Abe administration has called the military’s decision “extremely regrettable” but did not suspend ties or impose penalties. Part of the calculation must be about Japan’s business investments in Thailand.
The regional perspective does not ignore democracy but lends reality to principle. The longer lens of history judges that after almost a decade of in-fighting, Thailand is at a critical juncture in its political development.
It is not automatic that ASEAN won’t condemn Thailand’s situation. The position might change if the situation turns for the worse. But understanding the current calculation of concerns and priorities can highlight factors for others who wish to fully participate in the region’s affairs.
Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which in a 2014 global survey was ranked the No 1 think tank in ASEAN and the region.