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Make no mistake about Thailand’s problem

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

The recent gatherings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, ended with much controversy. For one thing, ASEAN once again failed to seriously find a solution to the protracted conflict in the South China Sea, which has involved four ASEAN countries — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — plus China and Taiwan.

Seemingly ASEAN was unable to produce a unified stance vis-a-vis the South China Sea issue, thus raising a question if the organization is ready to achieve its community-building goal in 2015.

While much attention was paid to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, democratic development in the region was only mentioned in passing.

The United States, while admiring the opening up process in Myanmar, cautioned that reforms in this Southeast Asian nation still had a long way to go.

Surprisingly no countries expressed concern about the grave political situation in Thailand. On May 22, the military staged a coup that overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Today the Thai Army has a full control of all aspects of political life and continues to violate the human rights of the Thai people.

In the context of ASEAN, there has been no formal statement condemning the Thai coup. The United States, the European Union and Australia have applied “soft sanctions” against the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) — the governing body of the coup makers. They all urged the coup makers to return power to the Thais promptly. Amid immense pressure from the international community, ASEAN, of which Thailand has been a key member since its inception in 1967, has remained silent.

On Aug. 8, The Japan Times published an article on the Thai coup by Simon Tay, who is leading Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs, which in a 2014 global survey was ranked the “number one think tank” in the region. His perception of the Thai political situation and his overt defense of ASEAN’s tolerance of the coup are unfortunate.

Tay begged readers to comprehend ASEAN’s position regarding the turmoil in Thailand by reiterating the grouping’s golden rule of noninterference. In Tay’s eyes, ASEAN has never got used to intervening in the internal affairs of its own members. Accepting this rule thus almost automatically accepts the suggestion that the Thai coup must be left alone, no matter how much it could damage to the credibility and reputation of ASEAN itself.

But the fundamental problem found in Tay’s piece is that he seemed to almost legitimize the political intervention of the military. Tay wrote that the coup came after several months of relentless protests in Bangkok, creating a situation of ungovernability. Therefore, once again, the coup could be perceived as legitimate.

But Tay failed to explain in greater detail the political plot that began with anti-government protests spearheaded by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former member of Parliament from the opposition Democrat Party, whose intention was to undermine electoral politics with support from the military in the first place.

This was manifest after the coup, when those protesters who broke the law were not brought to justice by the NCPO. Rather, politicians from the deposed government, critical academics and media, and anti-coup political activists have been arrested, harassed, detained and even imprisoned.

In other words, the military has not play a role of “democratic defender” in Thailand. Instead, the military’s intervention shows its desperate move to maintain its power position at this critical period of imminent royal succession.

Tay also assumed that ASEAN wished to wait and see if the NCPO would keep its promises in putting Thailand back on the democratic track. He even suggested that past coups in Thailand were relatively brief. Perhaps he was not aware that Sarit Thanarat and Thanom Kittkachorn, famous despots of the late 1950s to the early 1970s, ruled Thailand for five and 10 years, respectively.

Tay was optimistic that the new Cabinet under the military regime would reinstate stability and economic growth and that Thailand would become normal again under a reformed constitution. Tay glossed over many controversial policies under the NCPO.

There would be no stability since the so-called reconciliation program was indeed a continued harassment of the red shirts, deemed as enemies of the military state. Media has been silenced. Critical academics have been hunted, myself included. Politicians allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have been forced out of politics through state mechanisms.

The members of the National Legislative Council (NLC) were handpicked by the coup leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, soon to be appointed prime minister. Close to 60 percent of the 220 NLC members are military men, a far greater number in comparison with Myanmar’s parliament. A recently drafted constitution, extolled by Tay as a “reformed” charter, is essentially undemocratic, with several articles stipulating the supreme power of the NCPO over the legislative, executive and judicial institutions. Moreover, in the final article of that constitution, the coup makers give themselves an amnesty for seizing political power in an unlawful manner.

Tay also trusted the military-influenced survey, which showed that almost 80 percent across the country accepted that the NCPO should oversee the reform process.

This is naive. Everyone in Thailand knows that such a survey was politically motivated. And under the precarious circumstances, no survey would dare tell the truth of the increasing unpopularity of the NCPO.

Protecting ASEAN’s muted response to the coup in Thailand might be understandable especially since many ASEAN states themselves have been at varying degrees politically vulnerable. Champions of democracy in ASEAN are scant.

Tay completely misunderstood the severe political situation in Thailand, or even imagined that the Thai military was somewhat democratic. This will only result in ignoring the hardship of Thais who this day struggle to strip the military from politics.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.