The recent military coup in Thailand that ousted the government of Yingluck Shinawatra has attracted concern and controversy. Very visibly, the United States, the European Union and Australia have criticised the situation, called for elections to be held as soon as possible and imposed measures to express their disapproval.
The recent military coup in Thailand that ousted the government of Yingluck Shinawatra has attracted concern and controversy. Very visibly, the United States, the European Union and Australia have criticised the situation, called for elections to be held as soon as possible and imposed measures to express their disapproval. However, others have remained quieter on the issue, notably the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China.
From the US, high-level criticism came from Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. The Americans suspended almost one-third of its military aid. This amounts to only US$3.5 million (S$4.38 million), but is a significant signal, given that Thailand is a strategic treaty 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 assisted non-democratic regimes and even dictatorships when necessary.
The reaction 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.
UNDERSTANDING ASEAN’S CONCERNS AND PRIORITIES
The previous coup of 2006 provoked stronger reactions. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines expressed shock and concern to varying degrees. Two years later, the 10-member bloc agreed to adopt the ASEAN Charter, which expanded the rhetoric on human rights and reinforced the principles of democracy and constitutional government.
So why is there not a stronger reaction against the coup?
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 coup happened after months of protest and intransigence made the country almost ungovernable, while the economy dipped sharply.
Second, although democratic principles are preferred, most in ASEAN will wait to see how the Thai military junta, or National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), performs. Past military interventions in Thailand have been relatively brief and the NCPO aims to establish a Cabinet shortly and then work to bring back stability and economic growth. If that can be done and the country returned in short order to having an elected government under a reformed Constitution, many will feel the intervention was not without benefits.
One bellwether will be the acceptance among Thais.
While there have been small and sporadic protests, a survey from last month showed that almost 80 per cent across the country accept that the NCPO 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 dispute, an ally of the US, destination for Japanese investments and a friend to China. But there is a need to help maintain that balance.
With this coup, China’s already considerable influence in Thailand could increase further. Notably, the Thai military leadership visited Beijing in June to discuss closer cooperation. Further, Thailand is reported to have approved a US$23 billion transport project that will see two high-speed railways link up directly with China by 2021.
In contrast, media reports suggest the US has yet to decide whether it would want to go ahead with Exercise Cobra Gold, a key regional military exercise hosted by Thailand annually.
While Washington’s preaching of democracy is unlikely to push Bangkok into China’s sphere firmly, if its condemnation and sanctions harshen, it is not impossible. After all, democratic preaching and sanctions led Myanmar down that path until its recent and dramatic opening.
Even if principle must be upheld, perhaps Japan’s position may be a useful guide. The Abe administration has called the military’s decision extremely regrettable, but did not suspend ties or impose penalties. Part of the calculation could be Japan’s business investments in Thailand.
The regional perspective does not ignore democracy, but lends reality to principle. The longer lens of history also judges that, after almost a decade of infighting, Thailand is at a critical juncture in its political development.
ASEAN has not condemned Thailand’s situation, but this is not a given. The position might change if the situation turns for the worse.
Nevertheless, understanding the current calculation of concerns and priorities can highlight factors for others who wish to fully participate in the region’s affairs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Simon Tay is the chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which in a global survey this year was ranked the No 1 think-tank in ASEAN and the region.