On Thailand's bumpy road back to democracy

opinion July 09, 2014 00:00

By Alexander Mohr
Special to The

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Political conflict in Thailand was already deeply rooted in 2006 when the previous coup toppled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the recently ousted Yingluck Shinawatra.

Events since the latest coup have raised many questions. The way the junta has dealt with academics and critical voices has raised deep concern among members of the international community. The summoning of prominent citizens to report to the junta might have stopped, but many activists and academics are now being prosecuted in military courts. The media still faces restrictions. Fundamental freedoms of Thai citizens were and still are limited. 
However, many Thais support the coup and the military’s subsequent actions, being tired of the endless demonstrations and political deadlock that came before.
But now, the coup’s impact on Thailand’s international ties is starting to show. At first, many regional neighbours declared that nothing would change in their relations with Thailand for the time being, while Western countries were rather soft in their reactions. The EU merely raised “extreme concerns”, though the US response – cancelling military exercises with Thailand – was slightly more direct.
But things seem to be changing. International observers now see a shift in the reactions of the international community towards military rule in Thailand. 
The EU declared at end of June that it was suspending all official visits to and from Thailand. It is also shelving important agreements, declaring that the signing of an accord to deepen political and business ties with Thailand would be put on hold until a democratically elected government is in place again. 
EU foreign ministers are urging the coup leaders to return democracy through fair elections, abolish censorship and free all political prisoners. Most importantly the EU has now cancelled the next round of negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Thailand and the EU, and suspended all further talks. While other Asean countries press on with FTAs with the EU, this could become a real problem for Thailand, whose exports strongly depend on trade with the EU, one of its biggest trade partners.
The EU announced it will keep all cooperation under review for now and “will consider further possible measures”, depending on how the situation in Thailand unfolds. In other words, more drastic measures could be imposed. 
And the EU is not alone: The US and Australia have now also imposed further measures and continue to review whether to impose more measures to mount pressure on the junta.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) might have anticipated this reaction from Western countries, but it seems to have underestimated the pressure. The US seems to be under the impression that the junta has not shown signs of wanting to restore democracy in the short term and is thus considering its next steps.
In response, the junta said it would have a provisional charter implemented by July, before appointing the members of a national assembly. The plan is then for an interim government by September and elections in the next 15 months. 
Elections are the right way to go. However, the job right now is to make sure these elections are conducted in an open and transparent manner, with international observers present. This is the main problem. Unfortunately this cornerstone of democratic participation has in the past often been used to blur the line between political favours and the people’s mandate. This is one of the main sources of damage done to the Thai political system. 
These mechanisms to ensure a free and fair election may sound dull and are certainly far less exciting than protesting for regime change in the streets, but they are the backbone of change, participation and democracy, and have been badly neglected in the past.
However, for Thailand to once again play a strong role in Asean and among other international players, the return to democratic rule is crucial. If Thailand wants to avoid another political crisis in years to come it has to work on the very foundations on which the country is built.
Alexander Mohr, PhD, is partner for international relations at the government relations firm Alber & Geiger in Brussels and was a lecturer in international relations at the Institute d’etudes Politiques de Paris, France.