Commentary / World

Two peas in a pod: Duterte in Bangkok

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Last month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte paid a visit to two ASEAN countries, Thailand and Myanmar, completing his introductory tour in the region as the republic’s new leader. His visit to Thailand, from March 21 to 23, was observed closely by analysts who were curious about his government’s relationship with the despotic Thai regime.

Duterte visited Thailand twice in the past four months. The first time was in November when he flew to Bangkok to pay respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. While in the Thai capital, Duterte also held talks with Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and met with members of the Thai private sector and the overseas Filipino community in Thailand.

On the official front, the two countries signed myriad agreements on cooperation in agriculture, tourism, and science and technology. The Philippines agreed to procure Thai rice out to 2018. Duterte shared his views with his counterpart on economic reforms and was keen to explore business opportunities in lucrative areas including services, digital content, energy, agriculture and innovation in Thailand. Moreover, they discussed the possibility of establishing special economic zones and corridors in their respective countries.

Security issues were also included in the talking points. From terrorism and drug trafficking to cybersecurity, Duterte and Prayuth found it in their common interest to organize the first meeting of the Thai-Philippine Joint Committee on Military Cooperation later this year. The conflicts over disputed territories in the South China Sea that both China and the Philippines lay claim to reigned high in the discussion. Thailand urged a peaceful solution while the Philippines stressed respect for freedom of navigation as being of uppermost importance in the disputed waters.

Days after he returned home and riding high on his successful trip, Duterte confronted controversial domestic issues. He repeated his wish to bring back martial law to save his nation of 100 million people from descending into what he says is drug, crime and terrorism-induced anarchy. Academic Jose Manuel Diokno said, “I think the situation today is the closest we’ve been to an authoritarian form of government in 30 years.”

Either by accident or intention, the Thai military regime may have loaned its heavy-handed approach in dealing with social and political issues to the Philippine leader. The Thai Consitution’s Article 44, which grants absolute power to the military government, has been used discursively to undermine critics of the junta. Strangely, the promotion of martial law in the Philippines and Thailand’s Article 44 has gained broad support from some quarters in both societies.

Some Filipinos have cheered their government’s anti-drug war and view Duterte as a strongman who can reform politics and eliminate deep-rooted corruption. In Thailand, the Prayuth regime is surviving because of support from the middle and upper classes who fear that their political interests would be thrown into jeopardy should their enemy, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, make a political comeback. To them, the military is their defense.

Hence, the strengthening of bilateral ties between two like-minded leaders may not be good news for the region. The Thai military, which staged a coup in 2014, has relentlessly sought approval from neighboring countries, particularly in ASEAN and China, as a way to offset pressure from the West. Since the coup, it is evident that the junta has moved Thailand closer into the orbit of China and willingly reconciled with old rivals in the neighborhood.

For example, Thai-Myanmar relations have recently been consolidated with an exchange of visits by both leaders. Not long after the coup, Myanmar Supreme Commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Bangkok, making him one of the first few leaders from ASEAN to meet Prayuth. Min Aung Hlaing praised the Thai junta for “doing the right thing” in seizing power. He also compared it to his country’s experience during the political upheaval that took place in Yangon in 1988, when the army launched deadly crackdowns on pro-democracy activists.

Such an alliance soon welcomed a new member — Cambodia. The visit to Bangkok by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in December 2015 sent out a message that the two countries were enthusiastic about repairing their damaged ties. This followed years of conflict over the Preah Vihear Temple and the allegations of Hun Sen supporting Thaksin and offering shelter to anti-coup Red Shirts, some of whom are supporters of the former Thai premier.

Gradually, the political interests of Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and now the Philippines have appeared to converge. They have increasingly emerged as a large, dark hole that could threaten democracy in the region. In the background, China has successfully forged close relations with these states, perhaps with the exception of the Philippines due to their quarrels in the South China Sea. China has made inroads into Myanmar and Cambodia, and now serves as Thailand’s legitimacy provider in defiance of international sanctions. The new alliance, which looks like a de facto semi-democratic bloc, could negatively affect peace and stability in Southeast Asia.

Whatever has happened in Thailand could potentially encourage Manila to bypass the democratic process even though Duterte himself came to power through such means. Meanwhile, Duterte’s authoritarian approach has boosted the confidence of the Thai junta to continue its brutal regime at home. On a bilateral basis, strong ties between the two countries are welcome. But how they will shape the future of the region must be assessed critically as well.

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