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When it comes to democracy, Asia — especially South and Southeast Asia — can stand tall. In 2015, Nepal adopted a new federal constitution, ending a decades-long insurgency by Maoist rebels. The neighboring Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan replaced its absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy in 2008. Indonesia, Malaysia and to a degree Vietnam have all adopted democratic forms, and even the repressive military regime in Myanmar managed to organize multiparty elections in 2015 — its first in decades.
But the Kingdom of Thailand is regressing.
Ever since the army overthrew the civilian government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22, 2014, and suspended the Thai constitution following months of violent street protests, a military dictatorship has been running the country. And almost since the beginning, the ruling junta — officially called the National Council for Peace and Order — has been promising that general elections would be held, only to repeatedly push back the date of said elections.
In late June, Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Wissanu Krea-ngam, announced yet another delay, indicating that voting would actually take place some time between Feb. 24 and May 5 of next year. Meanwhile, the current ban on political activity will be relaxed in September to let legally registered parties prepare for the 2019 election.
“The most important thing is to look forward,” said Virachai Plasai, Thailand’s envoy to the United States. “Technical reasons related to promulgations of laws and regulations have delayed the process, but the current government has been following a road map, and at the end of this road map there will be a free and fair election.”
Plasai, 57, has been ambassador here for half a year now. Interviewed by The Washington Diplomat at his official residence on Decatur Place, he seemed happy to discuss the pending return of democracy to Thailand.
“People are starting to get excited about having the opportunity to cast their vote again,” he said. “In March, when the government opened up registration, nearly 100 parties registered to participate — some old faces, but also some new ones too.”
A native of Bangkok, Plasai won a government scholarship to study at the University of Paris on the condition he come back and work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After earning his law degree in 1986, he did just that, returning to represent the Thai government in a number of high-profile legal cases, and serving as a panelist and arbitrator at the World Trade Organization. He also served as Thailand’s ambassador to the Netherlands and its permanent representative to the United Nations in New York before taking up his current assignment in Washington.
Plasai’s first official act, which took place April 23 — his first day on the job — was to host 50 dinner guests at the St. Regis Hotel. The event was sponsored by Thailand’s Prince Mahidol Award Foundation, which had just bestowed a $100,000 prize on a division of the National of Institutes of Health for its work on the Human Genome Project.
In our interview, Plasai emphasized the enduring “excellent relations” between Thailand and the United States. The 200 years of friendship date back to an Aug. 15, 1818, letter written by Phaja Surivongmontri to then-President James Monroe. That was the year Capt. Stephen Williams arrived in Bangkok after a year-long journey from Boston, seeking to buy sugar. The letter proposed continued trade, contact and cooperation — and eventually resulted in the 1833 Treaty of Amity establishing formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“Our American friends value democracy very highly, which we understand. So they have expressed concern [about our election process], and as friends, we understand that,” the ambassador said. “It’s been clear to everybody that this government is keeping its word. For the last two or three years, we’ve been laying down the new legal foundations for what we think should bring about a better form of democracy more suited to Thai culture.”
Little Tolerance for Dissent
Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand — a little larger than California — is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its 69 million inhabitants make it the 20th-most populous nation in the world, and the fourth-most populous in the 10-member ASEAN bloc after Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam (see related sidebar “ASEAN Cultural Center: An Unusual Tourist Attraction in Bangkok”).
Thailand is also a newly industrialized country with exports of cars, trucks, auto parts, electronics, machinery, rice, processed foods and other goods accounting for more than 70 percent of its $450 billion economy. Its annual per-capita GDP of around $6,000 and its heavily developed infrastructure rank favorably compared to nearby Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
Yet the concept of democracy is a relatively new development for this ancient Buddhist kingdom, which has been ruled as a monarchy since the Phra Ruang dynasty of the 13th century.
But the ambassador insists that the issue of Thailand’s bumpy road to democracy isn’t its monarchy but rather its cultural beliefs.
“We have been an independent people for thousands of years,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the monarchy. It has to do with culture and basic thinking, the Thai way of life, which in many respects are not compatible with democracy. Our individualistic, Buddhist approach goes against the basic idea of democracy, of collective responsibility and respecting majority rule.”
To prove his point, Plasai cited the Netherlands, where he lived for six years. The Dutch have a king who presides over one of the world’s wealthiest and most advanced democracies.
“In our culture, we tend to accept and tolerate foreigners. We are a culture of moderation and tolerance,” he said, noting that Thailand established its first overseas embassy in 1608, in the Netherlands.
“Democracy is something that we imported from the West, but it’s not homegrown,” he added. “There is no doubt that most Thais now believe this is the best form of governance. But since this is an imported concept, it needs to be adapted to local conditions. We’ve been trying to do this for nearly 80 years, and still we haven’t found a sweet spot.”
Indeed it hasn’t. Since 1932, the country has gone through 25 general elections, 19 coups d’état and 20 constitutions.
And while Thais may be accepting of foreigners, the current dictatorship has little tolerance for dissent at home — especially among supporters of the Shinawatra family dynasty. Those supporters tend to come from poorer rural areas in the north and east who often complain of marginalization by the Bangkok political and military elite.
Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications magnate, democratically came to power as prime minister in 2001 on a populist platform, pledging to reduce poverty, expand infrastructure, health care and education, and take on the establishment. He was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2005 by his base — mostly farmers and the working class — but was accused of corruption, abuse of power and autocratic backsliding. Mass protests erupted by so-called “yellow shirts” made up largely of royalists, ultra-nationalists and the urban middle class who opposed Thaksin’s rule. After the uprising, the military ousted Thaksin, who now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai.
But in 2011, his sister Yingluck was elected prime minister. The political establishment saw Yingluck as a proxy for her deposed brother and she, too, was ousted by the military in 2014 and fled the country. She was also found guilty of mismanaging a rice subsidy scheme that cost the government billions of dollars and would face jail time if she ever returned to Thailand.
Tens of thousands of “red shirts” — Thais who voted for the Shinawatras — began turning out to protest the military coups and judicial rulings. Years of tit-for-tat protests between the red shirts and yellow shirts resulted in sporadic violence and crippled Bangkok, culminating in the 2014 military takeover.
Since then, the junta has maintained an iron grip on power, stifling dissent and firmly entrenching itself in everyday Thai life.
But tensions still percolate between the Bangkok establishment and supporters of the Shinawatras, revealing the country’s deep-seated class divisions.
Earlier this year, the fugitive brother and sister were spotted in Singapore, and reports have surfaced that Thaksin is calling for unity among his banned Pheu Thai Party ahead of potential elections in 2019.
Pheu Thai Party members have begun registering to campaign in those elections, but the junta has cemented its control over future governments through a new constitution, and it is likely to stamp out any resurgence of the Shinawatras’ dominance over Thai politics.
While support for the Shinawatras still runs high, in many circles, the military remains popular as well for restoring order and reviving an economy battered by protests that deprived it of much-needed foreign revenue. For other Thais, fatigued by years of mass demonstrations that paralyzed their country, they have begrudgingly accepted the junta’s clampdown as a necessary evil. Ever since the 2014 coup, campaigning and political gatherings of more than five people have been illegal. There have been intermittent demonstrations, although protesters — generally university students — are usually outnumbered by police officers in black uniforms wielding batons, pepper spray and tear gas.
Amnesty International, in a recent report titled “They Cannot Keep Us Quiet,” criticized Thai authorities, and specifically the National Council for Peace and Order, for unleashing a “systematic crackdown” on anyone who disagrees with the regime.
“Authorities continue to flagrantly use deeply repressive laws and decrees to target human rights defenders, activists and political opponents peacefully exercising their human rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” said the London-based nonprofit. “These laws must be lifted without delay.”
‘Work in Progress’
Plasai defended the current situation by urging patience and civility following the promulgation of a new interim constitution in 2017.
“You have to distinguish between two things. The first is violation of existing laws, and you have to deal with that, because otherwise there is no rule of law. On the other hand is the genuine expression of opinions and views, which is guaranteed by the new constitution,” he said. “Sometimes, people try to blur these and make the two overlap. And sometimes they do overlap, but not all the time.”
An example of this gray area is criticism of a government action backed by inaccurate information, which is itself a violation of existing law.
“We see this as a work in progress,” said the ambassador. “This government came in with a clear purpose from day one: to return to democracy. It’s like if you take a four-hour trip to New York that turns out to be six hours. But you’re on that road to New York and you eventually arrive there.”
There should be absolutely no doubt, he assured this reporter, that “if we meet again this time next year, by then we will have a new government. These technical delays are in order to lay down the new legal foundation, which in my view should do the job.”
That’s because “it provides for political and constitutional solutions to many of the impasses that we found ourselves in before the coup,” said Plasai, suggesting that violence erupted because those solutions were simply lacking.
“For example, it’ll be possible for the new parliament to vote for somebody to become prime minister without having to go through another election, which is timely and costly.”
Yet an unelected Senate and other elements of the new constitution “lay the foundations for prolonged military control, even if the junta fulfills its promise to hold elections,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in its latest report on Thailand. It also warns that Thailand is still in crisis four years after the coup.
“The military has banned political activity and public assembly, enforced media censorship, arbitrarily arrested dissidents, and detained civilians in military facilities. Authorities have used lese majeste [insulting the monarchy], sedition and computer crime charges to suppress free speech,” HRW said.
ASEAN: ‘Cornerstone of Foreign Policy’
In the midst of all this uncertainty, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is scheduled to take over the one-year presidency of ASEAN from Singapore on Jan. 1, 2019. A sternly worded opinion piece in the Jakarta Post said the trade bloc — whose secretariat is located in Jakarta — shouldn’t let it happen.
“This time, the change is much more than a regular transfer of chairmanship,” said the July 31 article by Kornelius Purba. “The Thai junta does not deserve the position amid strong waves of democratization in this region. We just witnessed how Malaysians responded to a corrupt leader. Myanmar is also undergoing a major transformation of democracy, although de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has not been able to fully control the country. The Philippines and Indonesia belong to a club of democratic nations despite domestic problems.”
The editorial added: “ASEAN will unnecessarily humiliate itself in front of the global community when the regional grouping introduces Prayuth as the chair next year…. Thailand deserves the right to chair ASEAN — but not under a junta that has continued to cling to powers it robbed from the people four years ago.”
But objections to Thailand’s chairmanship are likely to be minimal. Thailand is a founding member of the bloc, which prides itself on noninterference in the domestic affairs of its member states and finding solutions by mutual consensus.
Plasai said the bloc “is a cornerstone of our foreign policy, so we take this chairmanship very seriously.” He identified the three pillars of that policy as regional security, economic integration among ASEAN’s 10 member states, and the promotion of social and cultural integration.
“Our goal is full and deep economic integration,” he said. “We have always looked at the EU as our role model, but we can’t any more. Brexit is the opposite of what we want.”
To that end, Thailand is pushing its Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), an ambitious $45 billion project that aims to turn three eastern provinces — Chonburi, Rayong and Chachoengsao —into a manufacturing and technology hub, with strong land, air and sea links to Thailand’s ASEAN neighbors.
Funding for the project will come from a mix of state funds, public-private partnerships and foreign direct investment. The government predicts the EEC will generate 100,000 jobs a year by the time it’s completed in 2021.
“The EEC is a continuation of what we started in the 1980s and will serve as a springboard for the region. We also plan to link the airports as well as help Myanmar develop a land bridge,” said Plasai. Crucial to the EEC’s success will be a major planned expansion of Thailand’s largest port (see related sidebar “Thailand’s Laem Chabang Aims to Become One of Southeast Asia’s Busiest Ports”).
The junta is also putting greater emphasis on building rail links and improving transport and logistics near its borders with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, with an eye toward securing tariff-free entry for the region’s goods into the EU.
Such policies have clearly sparked interest in the region. Last year, Thailand jumped 20 places, from 46th to 26th, in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index. Thailand has completed 12 free trade agreements with 17 countries, and it’s currently negotiating three more with its ASEAN partners and six others, including Pakistan and Turkey.
In 2017, Thailand’s economy grew by 3.9 percent, with expected GDP growth to reach 4.6 percent this year.
Yet the looming trade war between the United States and China — a war sparked largely by rhetoric from President Trump — could potentially harm the Thai economy. China is now Thailand’s largest export market, buying 12.4 percent of the country’s goods last year. Veteran economist Sompop Manarungsan warned back in March that “Thailand’s exports would also be adversely impacted, and our export target of 8 percent growth this year may not be met.”
The ambassador put it more bluntly: “When two elephants clash, the grass will be crushed. In this case, we are friends with both elephants, but we are the grass.”
Regardless of coups or trade wars, there’s one industry in Thailand that seems to flourish no matter what: sex tourism.
Before we wrapped up our interview, The Diplomat asked Plasai what his country might do to stop, or at least put a damper on, what many say has become a national embarrassment.
“It’s a double-edged sword. Tourism is good, but you also have to manage the not-so-good side of tourism,” he responded. “Like everything, there’s a demand and a supply side. We can work on the supply side, by making sure there’s no human trafficking. Many U.S. states have laws that punish people who patronize prostitutes. But if tourists are coming to Thailand for this purpose, it means there’s still a demand.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.