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Why Asean hasn't condemned Thailand

The recent military coup in Thailand that ousted the government of Yingluck Shinawatra has attracted international concern and controversy. The US, the European Union and Australia were vocal in their criticism of the situation, called for elections to be held as soon as possible, and imposed measures to express their disapproval. Others, however, have remained quieter on the issue, notably Asean and China.

From the US, high-level criticism came from Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. America suspended almost one-third of its military aid. This amounts to just $3.5 million but is a significant signal, given that Thailand is a strategic non-Nato ally.

The Europeans suspended official visits to the country as well as the broad Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, while Australia downgraded diplomatic and military ties. Much of this is to be expected.

Western powers often champion their "values". This is despite the reality that the US has tolerated and assisted non-democratic regimes and even dictatorships when it deemed that a necessary policy.

The reaction to the coup among Asean neighbours has generally been more understanding. Most regard the events as an internal matter and none have imposed sanctions. Non-interference is a long-held principle for the group.

Thailand's previous coup of 2006 did however provoke more questioning. Moreover, the Asean Charter, adopted in 2008, enshrines principles of democracy and constitutional government. When they met shortly before May's coup, Asean ministers expressed concern over political tensions in Thailand.

Asean's position with regard to the military takeover is, as such, not automatic. Concerns and options have been weighed, and the factors considered may be relevant to others.

First, there is no illusion that it is easy to establish practical ground rules without setbacks and they will be cautious about casting the first stone. This is especially when the intervention happened after months of protest and political deadlock had made the country almost ungovernable, while the economy was dipping sharply.

Second, although democratic principles are preferred, most in Asean will wait to see how the National Council for Peace and Order (NPCO) performs. Past military interventions in Thailand have been relatively brief, and the NPCO aims to establish a Cabinet shortly and then work to bring back stability and economic growth. If that can be done and an elected government under a reformed constitution returned quickly, many will feel the intervention delivered some benefits.

One bellwether is the level of acceptance for the military's move among Thais.

While there have been small and sporadic protests, a July survey suggests that almost 80 per cent across the country accept that the NPCO should oversee the reform process. More than two-thirds of Thais surveyed also report they are happier now than before the intervention. Business confidence has also bounced back somewhat.

A third factor is Thailand's regional role. It is the region's second-largest economy and a key actor in Asean's plan for economic integration by 2015. The country is also a significant political player and coordinator for the group's dialogue with China during this time of sensitivity over maritime claims.

The country is well poised in this role - as a non-claimant to the disputes, an ally of the US, destination for Japanese investments, and a friend to China. But there is a need to help maintain that balance.

Post-coup, China's already considerable influence could increase further. Notably, Thailand's military leadership visited Beijing in June to consult on closer cooperation. Further, Thailand is now reported to have approved a $23-billion transport project that will see two high-speed railways link up directly with China by 2021.

In contrast, reports suggest that the US has yet to decide whether it will go ahead with Cobra Gold, key regional military exercises hosted by Thailand. Of course, Washington can be expected to preach democracy, and there may be no immediate danger of pushing Bangkok into China's sphere.

But if Western condemnation and sanctions get harsher, this is not impossible. Democratic preaching and sanctions, after all, led Myanmar down that path, until that country's recent and dramatic opening.

While principle must be upheld, perhaps Japan's position may be more suitable. The Abe administration has called the Thai military's decision "extremely regrettable" but did not suspend ties or impose penalties. Part of this calculation must be about Japan's business investments in Thailand.

The regional perspective does not ignore democracy but softens rigid principle with a dose of reality. The longer lens of history too judges that, after almost a decade of infighting, Thailand is at a critical juncture in its political development.

Asean's decision not to condemn Thailand's situation is not an automatic given. The position might change if the situation takes a turn for the worse. But understanding the current calculation of concerns and priorities can highlight factors for others who wish to fully participate in the region's affairs.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which in a 2014 global survey was ranked No 1 think-tank in Asean and the wider region. The 47th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting is taking place in Nay Pyi Taw this weekend.


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