Next year, Thailand will get its turn to chair the 10-member Asean. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is scheduled to hand over his chairmanship to Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha in November. It will be a major political boost for the general.
Will Indonesia just let it happen?
This time, the change is more than merely a routine transfer of leadership. The Thai junta does not deserve the position after turning against the tide democratisation in our region. We have just witnessed how Malaysians responded to a corrupt leader. Myanmar is also undergoing a democratic transition, although de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has not been able to fully control the country. The Philippines and Indonesia belong firmly in the club of democratic nations despite domestic problems.
Asean has adopted a strict policy of non-interference and mutual consensus, enshrined in its 2007 Charter.
Myanmar joined Asean in 1997 along with Laos, followed by Cambodia in 1999. Myanmar was handed the chair of the Asean Summit in 2014 as a reward for calling elections after decades of dictatorship. Opposition leader Suu Kyi subsequently won a landslide victory in 2015. According to then-Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, Myanmar’s reforms made it possible for the country to assume the chairmanship role.
In contrast Asean will unnecessarily humiliate itself in front of the global community if the regional grouping introduces Prayut as the chair next year.
The general toppled democratically elected prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014 on the pretext of ending alleged rampant corruption and abuse of power by the younger sister of previously ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra. It is true that the retired general has taken strong measures against the allegedly corrupt, but he has prioritised taking down opposition leaders.
For Indonesians who experienced life under Suharto, Prayut’s tactics to silence the media, manipulate legislative bodies and strangle freedom of speech and assembly are familiar. But why do Thais, including the media, seem mostly to accept the junta?
After failing to fulfil promises to hold free and fair elections, Prayut recently renewed his commitment to overseeing a return to civilian rule with a poll next year. It is highly unlikely that he will honour his word. Thailand’s neighbours should help it to regain its reputation as not just a role model for economic development and good governance, but also as a nation that ensures civilian supremacy.
Thailand is a founding member of Asean along with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. The country’s role in the bloc, which was established in Bangkok on August 8, 1967, has always been crucial. Thailand has gone through 25 general elections, 19 coups and 20 constitutions since 1932, yet many believe the current regime is among the most repressive Thais have seen. Thais are a proud people, forming the only nation in the region never to have experienced the bitterness of colonial rule. Preventing the Thai junta chief from chairing Asean would not target the Thai people, but rather punish the military generals.
Prayut has cleverly manipulated prolonged conflicts between the red-shirt supporters of Thaksin and the yellow-shirt supporters of the elites, the military and, to a certain extent, the royalists. Thaksin was prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before being ousted by the military, but he remains politically powerful and, under various party names, has won six elections.
His younger sister Yingluck served as prime minister from 2011 to 2014 before Prayut toppled her government and brought her to court, then later allowed her to flee before the court issued its verdict.
For more than 17 years, Thaksin has been regarded as an enemy of the nation by the military and its supporters. But the fact that he won several elections shows that the people want him as their leader.
This week, Asean foreign ministers hold their annual meeting in Singapore. They will also meet their dialogue partners from major powers. This is a good opportunity for Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Lestari to raise the “junta problem” with her Asean colleagues.
President Joko Widodo needs to use a strategy of silent diplomacy in discussing Thailand’s role with other leaders. And he must, of course, act according to the consensual Asean way.
Thailand deserves the right to chair Asean, but not under a junta that has continued to cling on to powers it stole from the people four years ago.