The coup has reset the country's domestic and external environment in the most radical ways with far-reaching implications. Internationally speaking, there was no ambiguity anymore. Thailand is at the bottom of the pit.
Almost all major Western friends criticized what happened as a matter of principle. A few did so with harsh words and coupling with sanctions. Other views were more measured demonstrating the level of sensitivities and understanding of Thailand’s overall dynamic.
Two important issues dominating the international media – as well as their perceptions – have been the human rights conditions in Thailand and the shift of Thai foreign policy towards the major powers-the US and China.
Obviously restrictions placed on individual rights and general assembly, arbitrarily detention, media censorship have attracted world-wide scrutiny. It does not bode well with international norms and practices.
Roughly three weeks after the coup, Thailand also had to defend its human rights records in Geneva at the 26th session of UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). During the midterm assessment of the first cycle of Thailand’s universal periodic reviews, UN experts and international human rights organizations have expressed serious concerns over the secret detentions due to the lack of information and access of family members of those who were detained.
Sad but true, although Thailand has made much progress to protect the human rights in implementing all the 134 out of 173 recommendations of the UNHRC that it accepted three years ago, the coup effectively trumped the year-long efforts and possible achievements .
Ironically, under the National Council for Peace and Order (NPCO), it is hoped that better coordination and cooperation from various government agencies would be more forthcoming to implement new laws and measures in protecting human rights. In addition, close monitoring from the National Commission for Human Rights and civil society groups are pivotal to improve the Thai overall human rights records.
At the close-door briefing last week to Thai diplomats from 23 countries, mainly based in Europe and North America, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha was mindful of foreign criticism of restrictions imposed on the society and the Thai people. He revealed that a dozen or so individuals were still under detention. The rest were freed a few days after their summations. The NCPO has to come clean on this issue – the sooner the better. Otherwise, negative publicity will continue and all good works would be lost.
In the past weeks, Thailand has moved quickly to win supports and understanding from the Asean friends with assurance of commitment to the Asean Community. Beyond Asean, the Thai senior diplomats met with the members of East Asia Summit (US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, India and New Zealand) in Yangon back to back to a series of meetings, briefing on the situation in Thailand. They expressed the willingness to work with the NCPO with some conditionality.
However, it has been Thailand’s relations with the US and China in the post coup that is the most popular topics among international relations scholars and media. They have concluded readily that Beijing’s sensible comments and understandings of Thai political development would certainly push Bangkok closer to its ambit. The last week’s inaugural foreign visit of senior Thai defense delegation to Beijing and the warm reception was a good case in point.
Truth be told, that is not necessary the case. It is all depending on Washington’s prevailing attitude and its value place on Thai-US friendship and alliance. Albeit benign neglected, it remains the cornerstone of Thai diplomacy. Indeed, Thailand has been struggling to rejuvenate the alliance but so far unsuccessfully due to political abnormity at home coupling with Washington’s complacency.
It was easy to understand why the Thai military leaders were pleased with the Chinese counterparts, who gave them “face” without humiliating them in a difficult situation. In the near terms, Thai-China relations would be given a boost.
One barometer would be the fate of nearly 500 Uyghur displaced persons from Xinjiang who have been detained by Thailand since beginning of this year. Prior to the coup, Thailand firmly maintained that they would be protected under international laws with assistance from International Organization for Migration.
Over the next 15-month transitional timeframe before a scheduled election, the US policy makers need to pay extra attention on Thai domestic developments that impact on their relations. The NPCO’s hostile attitude towards Washington was partly due to the American’s inaccurate assessments of the ground situation. Moderate comments in the future could ameliorate the current tension.
Thailand’s ties with the US and China are far more complicated than the general public have in mind. China certainly has a big advantage as the new Chinese leaders including President Xi Jingping and Premier Li Keqiang, are championing for good relations with Thailand and Asean by themselves.
For the US that is not the case. Thailand used to have lots of friends in the Congress in the past when they had common threats. Political conditions since 2000 have divided the Congress members and caused fragmented views and misperception of its 182 year-old friend. These days, there is no outstanding American lawmakers with deep knowledge of Thailand.
The NCPO will adopt a pro-active foreign policy, which has been the choice followed coups and numerous crisis in the past. New diplomatic initiatives could be expected. Under the current circumstance, Thailand will engage with the outside world without any condition.