Commentary / Japan

Thai general to solicit Japan

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Thailand’s self-appointed Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha will pay an official visit to Japan on Sunday through Tuesday to strengthen bilateral economic ties and, more importantly, to seek Japan’s endorsement of his government’s legitimacy.

On May 22 last year, Prayuth and the army staged a coup that overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. After months of relentless protests against the Yingluck government, which successfully created a situation of ungovernability, the military adopted an old trick: employing a coup to eliminate political rivals.

More than eight months later and under pressure from the West, the Prayuth government has pursued an aggressive foreign policy to forge foreign allies and alienate foreign critics. Japan represents a source of legitimacy for the Thai military regime. Prayuth’s trip to Japan has been widely publicized in Thailand as a success in getting recognition from one of the most powerful economies in the world.

While in Tokyo, Prayuth will ink a deal with the Japanese government on a high-speed train project that involves the building of rail tracks connecting Bangkok with Myanmar and Cambodia, — also known as the East-West Corridor rail link — as well as state-of-the art trains similar to Japan’s own famous shinkansen. Prayuth will take the shinkansen from Tokyo and Osaka to experience a ride that will, in the future, be in service in Thailand.

The high-speed train project was the result of recent multiple meetings between Prayuth and leaders in the Japanese government. On Jan. 27, Hiroto Izumi, special economic adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, held a discussion with Prayuth in Bangkok on the high-speed train agreement.

Prior to this meeting, Prayuth also met with Abe in October 2014 at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan and again, in November 2014, at the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at Myanmar’s Naypyidaw. Japan has provided breathing space for the Thai generals amid Western sanctions against their military regime.

A few weeks ago, the Thai political situation turned increasingly tense. The military-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) came to an impeachment verdict against Yingluck over her mismanagement of the rice-pledging scheme. As a result, Yingluck has been banned from politics for five years. She is also facing a criminal charge for alleged negligence that caused huge losses to the national budget. The verdict was controversial since there is no legal basis to impeach Yingluck: The 2007 constitution was discarded as a consequence of the coup. And Thais questioned if the NLC can impeach someone who has already left a position.

From this perspective, it seemed obvious that the Prayuth government has worked closely with the NLA to prevent the Shinawatras from returning to politics. Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin, also a former prime minister, was similarly toppled in a coup in 2006 and is today in exile in Dubai.

So far, Prayuth has been unable to confirm a date for the next election. Such lack of commitment serves to doubt the sincerity of the government to push for a serious political reform as its leaders have often claimed.

The drafting of a constitution is still in its embryonic stage. There is the possibility it may imitate Myanmar’s constitution in which the military retains its political role through Parliament. This would not be an impossible task; after all, members of the NLA were handpicked by the Thai junta, and most of them have enjoyed close relations with the military and the old establishment in various ways.

Meanwhile, at the societal level, human rights have continued to be suppressed. Protests are not allowed. Media is tightly controlled. Academics are barred from organizing seminars deemed hostile to the government.

As an academic living in Kyoto, I have been summoned twice for being critical of the military. Rejecting the summons, a warrant was issued for my arrest and my passport later revoked.

After the impeachment of Yingluck, the junta summoned a number of prominent politicians from her party, the Pheu Thai. This created a climate of fear in the political domain as well as among the public in general. Since the military government has maintained that the political situation remains fragile, it says martial law must not be abolished, even when it continues to violate human rights. The military exercises its power under martial law to arbitrarily summon individuals, detain and arrest them. Those charged with violating martial law will be tried in a military court.

On this basis, Daniel Russell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, visited Bangkok on Feb. 1 and talked with Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn, the foreign minister, and asked that Thailand end martial law soon. His action was attacked by the junta as an attempt to interfere in Thai affairs. That Russell also met Yingluck and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva further heightened the junta’s suspicion of the United States. The Thai government fears the U.S. might attempt to influence the political direction.

Prayuth swiftly condemned Russell and played a nationalistic card to try to delegitimize his alleged intervention. At the same time, Thai ultra-nationalists stormed the Facebook pages of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and of President Barack Obama with the repeated message that Thailand is independent and does not take orders from the U.S.

Although the political drama in Thailand is far from over, Prayuth’s trip to Japan might be a convenient break from the heat of Thai politics at home.

Japan is not the only country that offers warm embracing arms to the Thai junta. China, in particular, is willing to ride piggyback on the recent success of the military regime and to help raise the latter’s confidence in prolonging its rule of Thailand.

Sadly Japan is following in the footsteps of China, which may not help improve the Thai political situation.

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