A mini-storm brewing over what Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha actually told US President Donald Trump about Thailand’s road map to elections compelled me to read the three-page joint statement issued after Monday’s visit to the White House.
Prayut, without Trump’s raising the question, was expected to offer assurances that he was following international democratic norms with a timeline that would result in “announcing an election date next year”.
That’s what prompted the debate on what was actually said on Monday. Some observers here suggested that General Prayut (whose military title for the Washington trip was given the qualification “retired”) deliberately gave a loose promise that didn’t commit him to holding an election in 2018.
According to this line of analysis, Trump was merely told that the current government would announce an election timetable in 2018 – but that didn’t necessarily mean that the ballot-casting would take place by the end of next year.
Others reckon the message was official and clear: Thailand will organise an election by the end of next year. There should be no doubt about that.
Verbal discussions can often be interpreted in more than one way – and there were no reports that President Trump was keen to pressure the Thai leader for a definite election date.
But Item 8 in the joint statement reads:
“Recognising Thailand’s strategic importance to the United States and the region, the President welcomed Thailand’s commitment to the road map, which, upon completion of relevant organic laws as stipulated by the Constitution, will lead to free and fair elections in 2018. The two leaders also recognised the importance of protecting and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Isn’t that clear beyond all doubt? Those who think the “commitment” was crystal clear say the “free and fair elections” will be held in 2018. That’s the exact wording of the joint pledge in writing.
But there is never a shortage of doubters in Thai political circles. Some of them promptly pointed out the “conditional qualifier” – “upon completion of relevant organic laws as stipulated by the Constitution”.
Prayut, in his interview with reporters in Washington, stressed that he had clearly communicated the timeline to Trump, adding that ballot-casting would take place 150 days after the legislative process is completed. Isn’t that convincing enough?
Not really. Sceptics are posing the big “what if” questions: What if the relevant organic laws aren’t completed by the end of the year? What if the National Legislative Assembly rejects some of the related organic draft bills?
Well, the charter doesn’t hold any specific provisions for a case in which one or more of the proposed organic bills fail to pass in the NLA. The assumption, of course, is that the rejected bill would have to be rewritten – and things would go back to square one.
Would that mean the road map would be torn up? Not necessarily. Prayut has insisted all along that the road map remains unchanged. But then, there has never actually been a fixed timeframe for the road map. In other words, no matter what happens along the way, the powers-that-be can always claim that things are proceeding nicely according to the road map.
Of course, the Prayut-Trump joint statement isn’t cast in stone. Nor is it supposed to be the “last word” in Thailand’s political landscape.
After all is said and done, it’s the Thai people who have to decide whether General Prayut’s “commitment” to move the country “back to democracy” after the coup three years ago is being honoured through his actions. His promises are irrelevant.
Political pundits continue to debate what the premier’s road map means. Ask the man on the street, though, and responses will range from demanding an election tomorrow to doubting whether an elected government will be in place three years from now.
Prayut’s declared intention to draw up a 20-year National Strategy tells a story: Either he is seriously concerned that the next government won’t be visionary enough, or he is determined to be at the country’s helm for much of that two-decade mission.