Foreign Policy Blogs

Thai Junta Elicits Unwelcomed Attention from the European Parliament

Photo: World Economic Forum

Photo: World Economic Forum

Since the military coup of 2014, Thailand’s reputation on the international scene has gone up in smoke in a surreal flurry of gaffes, mistakes and authoritarian policies. The junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has used democratic processes almost to comedic effect. Elections were announced and postponed three times while military-stamped committees have written and re-written constitutions only to find them rejected by different committees. However, when the same impish approach to democracy was used on the European Parliament, the repercussions were dire.

Worried by the state of affairs in Thailand, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee decided to invite Yingluck Shinawatra, the ousted Prime Minister, to speak before the assembly and share her views on the country’s military rule. The European Parliament’s involvement in Thailand’s recent political woes has been fairly consistent in its mild condemnation throughout, yet took a rather more forceful turn after the invitation was rejected by Thai authorities.

In the aftermath of the coup, Yingluck was put on trial by the junta on accusations of corruption in a case widely seen as politically motivated. Perhaps, had the rejection been properly explained in an ordinarily diplomatic manner, the subsequent level of insistence might have been less forthcoming, but the junta dismissed the Parliament’s invitation as nothing more than a hoax. Consequently, the European Parliament renewed its invitation to Yingluck in what is shaping up to be an unprecedented international game of cat and mouse.

However, the European Union holds sufficient sway over Thailand, and this standoff should have been taken seriously by Bangkok. Since the junta came to power, Brussels halted negotiations over a proposed Free Trade Agreement with the ‘Land of smiles’ and is threatening to downgrade Thailand’s human trafficking-laden fishing industry to its lowest tiera red card. Were this to happen, imports of fishing products into Europe would be put on ice. The European Parliament, a body of significant power within the arcane architecture of the European Union, has the legislative authority to pass or block such a red cardand the junta’s behavior towards the body has been not at all endearing.

Sadly, if there’s one thing the junta cannot be accused of is inconsistency. Ever since coming to power, Prayuth and his team of double-hatting generals cum policymakers have consistently and unabashedly worked towards expanding their hold over Thai society. For example, the junta recently attempted to funnel all Internet traffic into a single gateway in order to allow closer monitoring of its population. According to US State Department sources, human trafficking has significantly increased under the junta’s auspices, with some Thai officials allegedly to blame for its continuing rise. Investigations under Thailand’s controversial lèse-majesté laws have risen from just a handful prior to the coup, to a whopping 53, most of which have led to arrests. Under the remit of the same laws, the press has become routinely censored. The New York Times’ print edition was censored by the local printer three times in the past few weeks over fears that the articles would be deemed disrespectful to the shielded Thai monarchy.

The most shocking development however, involves recent reports that the freshly-nominated US Ambassador to Bangkok is being investigated by the Royal Thai Police to probe whether a speech he made before an assembly of international journalists in Bangkok fell foul of the lèse-majesté laws. In his speech, the Ambassador expressed his concern at the “lengthy and unprecedented prison sentences handed down by Thai military courts against civilians for violating the lèse-majesté law.” The British ambassador is also at risk of being called in for talks after tweeting in favor of an anti-corruption demonstration.

Looking ahead, there is scant evidence the junta will hold elections any time soon. The junta has denied the nation the chance to democratically elect a new government until at least 2017; has committed to a course of returning political refugees and asylum seekers to the borders from which they were attempting to escape; enforced martial law earlier in the year; shut down political debates and meetings with little to no justificationand so on. It is little wonder that the NGO, Human Rights Watch, has described the situation in Thailand as going “…into free fall”.

Europe has often been criticized for its lack of unified action in condemning actions such as those currently prevalent in Thailand, and the junta leadership has obviously banked on the EP’s continued procrastination. However, by denying Yingluck’s participation before the Parliament, and alienating both the US and UK ambassador, the junta has opened a whole new can of worms. In effect, Thailand’s junta finds itself on the verge of being completely isolated and in a grave position of weakness at a time when the world’s attention is shifting to Southeast Asia.