By Fraser Cameron*
Visiting Thailand last month I was struck by the superficial calm in Bangkok as well as other cities. Most people go about their daily business without army or police interference. Tourists still come in their thousands to enjoy the many delights of the country. But although there are few visible signs of unrest many Thais wonder when they are going to have an elected government again. There is growing dissatisfaction with the military even among its initial supporters.
Although the military undertook some useful economic reforms, the economy is now stagnating with growth this year predicted at less than 3%. Foreign direct investment is falling and the regime shows little sign of understanding how to move Thailand out of the middle-income trap. Its GDP per head is just under $6,000, way below its rivals in Taiwan or Korea, let alone Singapore. It faces tough competition from its neighbours, Vietnam, Malaysia and now Myanmar. Thailand needs to move from its traditional cheap manufacturing base to an economy based on innovation and creativity. But this in turn requires political and intellectual freedom, in short a return to democracy.
The recently published draft constitution, however, is more of a discussion document than a blueprint for the return to democratic rule, a move demanded by the EU and US. It is almost two years since the military took control of the country ousting prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra who founded the rural-based Pheu Thai Party and who also fell foul of the military. He now lives in exile in Dubai but his shadow continues to fall large over Thai politics.
Martial law was in place across Thailand until April 2015 when it was lifted in most areas. However, article 44 of the interim constitution gives General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), wide powers to continue to take action to enforce law and order, and restrictions remain on freedom of assembly and expression. A number of media outlets have been taken off air and some internet sites remain blocked. It remains illegal to criticise the coup or the monarchy.
Initially justified as a means to bring much needed law and order to a country rocked by street fighting between the red and yellow shirts, the NCPO has had to make the transition from focussing on internal stability to addressing the multitude of long-term challenges facing Thailand. With little experience in government, Prime Minister Prayut has found this transition difficult to make. He now talks of the military entering a ‘second phase’ with a ‘possible’ return to democratic rule in 2017.
Most Thais are concerned about the rising cost of living and the economic downturn. The rural Thais also complain about the inadequate government response to the drought which has resulted in damaged crops and a lack of drinking water for livestock. Corruption remains widespread. Education also needs a serious revamp. With English the lingua franca of ASEAN many Thais are at a disadvantage compared to their peers elsewhere in the region.
Following the coup, the EU and US imposed sanctions against Thailand with Brussels and Washington also taking the regime to task on various issues such as human trafficking, the arrest of 14 college students, and the extradition of illegal Uyghur immigrants back to China. The EU has also been highly critical of the conditions aboard Thailand’s large fishing fleet. Brussels issued Thailand with a ‘yellow card’ last April warning that it needed to clean up its poorly regulated seafood industry, or face ‘red card’ bans on exports to the EU market. This was one of the most high-profile actions taken by the EU against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing since 2010 regulations against such practises came into force. As the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, Thailand is waiting nervously for the report by an EU inspection team which visited the country in January.
Meanwhile Thailand is the coordinator for relations between ASEAN and the EU and is coordinating a response to the EU’s proposal to establish a strategic partnership between the two blocs. This will not be an easy task as the EU’s priorities include cooperation on sensitive issues such as human rights and the rule of law.
Negotiations on a new partnership and cooperation agreement and a FTA with Thailand will also remain frozen until there is a return to democratic rule. Given the army’s penchant for interfering in Thai politics it would be a brave person to bet on when this will happen.
*Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Asia Centre in Brussels