Relations between Turkey and Asean are an important focus of discussion in Thai political circles – including in this newspaper. But the debate boils down to this question: Can today’s Turkey really help bring prosperity, opportunity and jobs to Southeast Asia and other international partners?
The reality is that Turkey lost its way and is floundering. A confused and repressive government in Ankara has left Turkey isolated on the international stage and in a search of markets to keep its shaky economy from collapsing. Ties with traditional allies like Nato, the US and the EU have been unravelling fast in response to Recep Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic behaviour after the failed coup of July 2016. The president has tilted away from the West and further towards Russia and Iran. Asean countries must now ask themselves whether partnering with a friend of Iran will bring more problems than benefits.
With no concrete reason and without agreement from its allies, Turkey unilaterally “invaded” Syria with tanks last month. Turkey calls its operations in Syria “jihad” (holy war). A secular, liberal country founded by Kemal Ataturk is taking on more and more characteristics of a radical Islamic country in the hands of Erdogan. His close supporters are now demanding the imposition of sharia law.
After the Syrian invasion, Erdogan was considered “uncontrollable” by Western allies. What chance, then, that Erdogan would heed the Asean bloc if it offered Turkey membership, as has been mooted?
The national state of emergency Erdogan declared after the coup attempt is still in effect a year and a half later, with no indications it will be lifted soon. The president sacked 150,000 officials, including 150 generals, across almost every department, and directed his government to forcibly seize control of thousands of private companies, worth a total $200 billion, for no valid reason. Most foreign investors quickly left Turkey in response to the increasing atmosphere of autocracy. If Turkey does become an Asean member, how many Southeast Asian businesspeople will invest in a country suffering ongoing political, social/ethnic and economic crises?
Erdogan has said many times that, as president, he represents 50 per cent of the people, not the others. Indeed he takes every opportunity to insult the country’s minorities, while also lashing out at EU countries and their citizens, branding them “facists”, “remnants of Hitler”, blood-sucking”, etc. If he so readily insults Western allies for political gain, Asean countries and citizens should prepare for verbal abuse. Erdogan obeys no ethical or moral framework and will create rifts and conflicts any time it suits him.
Middle East countries are now burning in a crucible of local and regional crises. This is presents perfect opportunities for an autocrat like Erdogan. If one’s house is not in order, he will leverage unhappiness, chaos and dispute to cement his own power. By comparison, Asean countries are relatively secure and “happy” at the moment. But inviting Turkey into Southeast Asia’s fold would likely bring chaos and dispute. I humbly suggest that Thailand and other Asean countries be vigilant and careful while considering opening their membership to such countries as Turkey.