Why the West is watching us

opinion April 11, 2019 01:00

By The Nation

It’s not clear why a dozen foreign diplomats turned out to see Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit being booked for sedition, but there are safe guesses



Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai seems to be jumping the gun with his accusation that a group of Bangkok-based diplomats violated diplomatic protocol when they visited the Prathumwan police station to observe charges being filed against Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Jungrungruengkit. “The acts of the group were considered diplomatically inappropriate and not in line with the United Nations’ diplomatic principles,” Don said. “The only reason they should get involved in the Thai justice system is because their citizens are accused of committing offences in Thailand and are charged. In that case, they have the absolute right to get involved.”

Thanathorn was on April 6 officially charged with sedition and other alleged offences dating to 2015. Asked why so much time was permitted to elapse, the police vaguely blamed the transfers in and out of office of the chief investigator. For the authorities to have waited until after last month’s election raises suspicions, especially given the solid support Thanathorn’s party enjoyed among voters.

What critics are suggesting – that Thanathorn is being bullied because of his stated intention to shrink the military’s role in politics – warrants consideration. And in doing so it should be remembered that any “anti-military” sentiment he has espoused has not been of a personal nature but rather broadly applied to the size and modern relevance of the armed forces. Thanathorn would prefer a leaner military institution, particularly in the upper brass and bureaucracy. Indeed, civilians, not soldiers, make up a substantial proportion of the staff in the defence ministries of most nations.

As for the large turnout of embassy representatives to witness Thanathorn’s booking, the reasons are for now a matter for mere speculation. It could be that they were drawn by the seeming absurdity of charging him with sedition. Perhaps it was the belief that the authorities’ handling of Thanathorn in the wake of such a crucial election will indicate where Thailand is headed next. The country’s further democratisation is important to Western countries, and their links to us are not without conditions attached. 

As well, it is the foreign diplomats’ duty to observe and report on rights abuses, and there is suspicion that Thanathorn is being unfairly treated. If he is in fact being bullied, it represents an attack on his freedom of expression, a universal value that major Western powers insist must be respected if diplomatic relations are to be maintained at all. 

When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeks to convince the international community that the government has an issue under control and is proceeding legally, it typically invites diplomats for discussion or issues a written communique. This is what happened last week too. Pol General Srivara Rangsibhramanakul said the diplomats, having seen Thanathorn routinely booked, were invited to a briefing afterwards. The explanations put forward were not disclosed.

All we can gather from the presence of the 12 foreign officials is that the world is watching Thailand. It seems it would be in our own best interests to be as open with the world as possible. Don, the foreign minister, is duty-bound to project an image of normalcy for Thailand. It is not normal, though, particularly after five years of military rule. That’s why the world is watching.