Last month the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) established a directorate centre to prepare Thailand for the arrival of the Asean Community (AC).
The purpose was to integrate all government agencies to implement the AC blueprint. It was a good jump-start after Asean leaders expressed concern over the situation in Thailand last December and May of this year, questioning its commitment to Asean as a whole.
It is interesting to note that the NCPO timeframe for reformation is congruent with the community-building plan for Asean. Both have 507 days to prepare for the new era, but time is running out fast. Key priorities can be pushed through without extra manpower or budget by improving and building on existing activities and structures. All that is needed is good common sense.
First of all, the NCPO must urge all relevant government agencies to report on the status of Asean-related protocols and agreements required for further action. Tonnes of agreements and laws need further amendment and ratification as soon as possible, especially those related to cross-border trade, service, finance and investment within Asean. Taking this opportunity, the NCPO must go beyond Asean and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, an agreement for protection from enforced disappearance. Thailand is already a party to seven key international human rights instruments.
However, Thailand’s dismal record as the world’s biggest illegal ivory trading market – under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – must be fixed right away. It is an insult to the NCPO that allows the country’s national animal to be slaughtered for its tusks, and use of the country as an ivory trade hub. This is a good time to have the job done without interference from vested interest groups among state agencies and colour-tainted politicians.
Second, awareness of the AC campaign must be reoriented. For the past two and half years, nearly Bt8 billion has been spent on promoting the country’s and people’s readiness for the new region-wide community. Unfortunately, Thais have been indoctrinated to equate the AC as the Asean Economic Community (AEC). They are ignorant that the AEC is one of three pillars of the AC, which includes political/security and socio/cultural communities. The Ministry of Commerce has unilaterally promoted the AEC campaign nation-wide and now must rectify this one-dimensional approach. A healthy AC must be holistic, covering all aspects of Asean affairs.
Third, reorganising the immigration procedure at Suvarnabhumi Airport as well as Don Mueang Airport, to highlight the presence and status of Asean tourists, who accounted for a quarter of the 26.7-million visitors last year. Currently Suvarnabhumi has two separate Asean lanes and an extra lane for passport holders from the Ayewady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation (ACMEC), made up of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. It is the world’s only airport that boasts such lanes. But none of the Asean and ACMEC citizens are aware of their special status, as once they arrive at the immigration check-in area, they are grouped with other passengers, without fast-track lanes. Moreover, officials stationed at the waiting area must be educated on the general topics of Asean. If Asean lanes are slower than the normal ones, there is no reason to have them.
Fourth, the NCPO must take care of migrant workers from neighbouring countries, especially those from Cambodia and Myanmar, because of the extreme exploitation they have encounter. The recent mass exodus of Cambodia workers showed high mistrust of the Thai authorities. Now all of them have returned to work with better assurances from the Thai side. Thus, efforts must be intensified to make their lives here more pleasant. The country’s recent downgrade to the level 3 watch-list by the latest US report on human trafficking in Thailand was due to bad treatment of workers from neighbouring states. The NCPO should move to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention – the six-decade fear of an influx of refugees from outside. More transparency and efficient prosecution of human traffickers and modern slave traders would improve the country’s image.
Thailand’s economy still needs migrant workers.
Fifth, within Asean, Thailand’s record on rights issues is nothing to be ashamed of despite inconsistencies. As such, the NCPO should allow international organisations to open regional or branch offices here to monitor the domestic and rights situation directly. The NCPO has nothing to fear. During the Surayud government, after the coup in 2006, the International Commission of Jurists was permitted to set up an office in Bangkok.
Thailand now has numerous representatives from foreign advocacy groups, which can be hard-hitting when assessing the local situation – but they mean well. Thailand is an open and rule-based society, as reiterated by the NCPO. Timely and accurate information and above all transparency, particularly on sensitive issues, would promote the country’s international image and profile. The case of Kritsuda Kunasen and her alleged torture is a good case-study. Otherwise, other and indirect information would be used and may dominate the discourse.
Finally, Thai soldiers have participated in various peacekeeping efforts under UN leadership for the six decades since the Korean War. The latest stint is in South Sudan in the Darfur region. Thailand along with Indonesia can take the lead to encourage Asean peace-keeping forces to raise the Asean flag to boost the group’s peace-making profile. Asean has set 2022 as the year the grouping will be truly global.
These actions might sound radical and dramatic. Granted the extraordinary times with extraordinary transitional powers, it is worth a try. Failure to do so would be a sham – something about which the NCPO could not point fingers at others.