PRIME MINISTER Prayut Chan-o-cha
PRIME MINISTER Prayut Chan-o-cha

SPECIAL REPORT: Junta plays economic card in EU trip

big read May 28, 2018 01:00


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PM Prayut heads to Europe on highprofile trip with business deals high on agenda.

PRIME MINISTER Prayut Chan-o-cha wants to use his planned trip to Europe next month to raise his international profile as the junta inner circle has seen a softening in the stance of western countries on democratisation to enhance economic engagement with Thailand.

Prayut is planning a high-profile visit to countries in the European Union, diplomatic sources told The Nation. The mission has become possible since last December when the EU decided to resume political engagement with Thailand at all levels, after distancing itself from the junta government following the 2014 coup.

The EU is desperate to improve its relations with military-ruled Thailand, as it is losing economic opportunities to other competitors such as China, which never makes ideological choices, a senior diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The EU trip, packed with business deals, would be a strong confidence boost for the PM amid the changing international political landscape.

Though it maintains its crucial role at the regional level, the Thai government is starting to have more visibility in the international arena through its commitment to modern values, security issues and economic partnerships.

The junta has maintained its out-reach programme, occasionally inviting ambassadors in Bangkok to witness key events of the national agenda – from human rights to the Thailand 4.0 initiative – mainly focusing on the role of modern technologies in driving the economy.

The ideas have also been sold during Prayut’s overseas trips since he took the premiership in 2014.

From 2015 to 2017, to soften his reputation for shackling democracy, Prayut made at least three promises to different international figures on the so-called road map to democracy.

The promise, each time, has been different. While the uncertainty over the return of democracy remains a concern for human rights organisations, the promises have helped buy time and legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.

The EU softened its stance when Prayut last year promised to hold elections by this November, a promise he has gone back on.

The ambassador of the European Union to Thailand, Pirkka Tapiola, said he would not speculate whether the election organised under the junta government would lead to a democratic outcome for Thailand.

“I will be sticking to [the road map] and would not predict too far,” Tapiola said in a recent group interview. “Pointing fingers [at other countries] would be just arrogant. Lecturing others is not EU style.”

With Thailand set to chair Asean next year, internal preparations have already started.

While Thailand is not a party to prominent regional security issues like the Korean Peninsula or the South China Sea, it has chosen to stay neutral and adhere to international consensus. Thailand has also been silent on the Rohingya issue in Myanmar, a country that has a long border with Thailand. Though Thailand has participated in humanitarian assistance to troubled areas in Myanmar, it has not directly attributed the root cause of the problem to Myanmar’s ruling authorities in its own interests.

The tough previous US stance against the Thai junta changed when billionaire businessman Donald Trump took office in 2017. After a hundred days in the White House, Trump made direct phone calls to several leaders, including Prayut. With less focus on traditional Western-style values, Trump invited Prayut for bilateral talks, a rare chance for the Thai premier to enter the Oval Office. The talks ended with initial trade agreements with the US, which had earlier singled out Thailand among others as countries with whom the US has a large trade deficit.

Security cooperation between Thailand and the US also seem to be going smoothly as far as military deals go. 

Deputy PM and Defence Minister General Prawit Wognsuwan recently visited the US Department of Defence. Democratisation was not on the agenda. Secretary James Mattis expressed confidence that the future for the Thai people would be positive as they regain their democratic footing.

The Brexit referendum that took place in 2016, reflecting a growing trend of protectionism, was also viewed as a global phenomenon that could influence Thailand’s referendum on the junta-written charter draft. The charter secured majority support in a referendum held two months later.

Since the coup, Thailand has been seen as tilting towards China – from making controversial submarine deals to economic reliance, notably for development of the Eastern Economic Corridor. China is among the few countries that have refrained from commenting on Thailand’s domestic political developments, joined in recent months by many other western countries.