Thai junta leader in Europe ‘to collect stamps of approval’

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 16, 2014

Thailand's prime minister and military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at Malpensa Airport in Milan, where he will be attending the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting on October 16-17, marking his first visit to Europe since taking over powers in a military coup in May 2014. (Pic: Facebook/Wassana Nanuam)
Thai prime minister and military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives in Milan, Italy Wednesday to attend the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting. Pic: Facebook/Wassana Nanuam.

Thai junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha will meet leaders of the European Union for the first time since the military coup this week in a self-proclaimed mission to help Western leaders “understand” the political situation in Thailand. But there is no guarantee that it is going to work, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

One of the many life lessons one will learn is that you simply can’t win over everyone. That’s something that Thailand’s military government seems to be struggling to cope with, especially when it comes to foreign policy towards the West. Observing the reaction from Thai prime minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha and members of his cabinet shows a curious split in narrative wobbling back and forth between desperately seeking approval and snide dismissal when it comes with dealing criticism abroad.

In the immediate aftermath of the military of coup in May 2014, many countries around the world (to varying degrees) expressed their “grave concerns” about the worst-case scenario. Some condemned the hostile takeover of power and others also added a demand for a “rapid” or “immediate” return to democratic principles and elections.

Western countries reacted initially the harshest at the sight of Thailand’s second coup d’etat in eight years: United States Secretary of State John Kerry said that the coup would have “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military.” This was emphasized with the US’ suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m – which is a drop in the ocean compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself for next year’s budget. The European Union (EU) seemingly went slightly further, stopping all visits to Thailand and suspending the signing of an agreement on closer economic and political ties – an apparent downgrade in EU-Thai relations.

The Thai junta, seemingly offended and also appearing unfazed at the same time, has turned to other countries in the region by seeking closer ties to China, as evident in the approval of a $23bn train network connecting the two countries. But the Thai junta’s China pivot could turn out to be a zero-sum game in the long-term. Neighboring countries like Burma and Cambodia have welcomed the Thai generals (literally!) with open arms and gave their blessings to the junta as well, which should alarm ASEAN despite their long-held tradition of non-intervention.

It was evident that the Thai junta and the military government (which is essentially one and the same) had an unsurmountable uphill task to convince the international community that their (vague, but yet so clear) intentions to “reform” the political system are sincerely for a return “swift” return to “true democracy” with elections held sometime in late 2015 – which may or may not be postponed further back into 2016, depending on whether or not their “reform” plans actually stick.

The hardest part still remains the Western head of states and diplomats. The appointment of recently retired supreme commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn as foreign minister – much to the chagrin of several diplomats – certainly didn’t help to raise the diplomatic credibility of the military government either.

His first big mission was at the United Nation General Assembly in New York last month, where General Thanasak was spouting the usual claims by the Thai junta that it is “not retreating from democracy,” but that the military intervention was “necessary” amidst the deteriorating political conflict (while absolutely disregarding the manufactured nature of the anti-government protests that made the coup possible in the first place!).

Now his boss has boarded the plane and after making his first visit as Thai junta prime minister to neighboring Burma, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is visiting Europe this week. More specifically, he is attending the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting in the northern Italian city of Milan on Thursday and Friday.

This marks a curious turn of events after the (in hindsight rather soft) sanctions and nearly universal condemnation from the West as General Prayuth will be meeting EU leadership with Herman Van Rompuy, recently elected President of the European Council, and EU Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso, as well as heads of states from both Europe and Asia.

The main goal of this trip is clear: thaw frozen Thai-EU relationships and get back to business – literally! Thailand is poised to position itself in a leading role in ASEAN and being the EU-ASEAN coordinator in July 2015 certainly helps – especially with the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community looming around the corner.

But is normalizing relations with a Thai military government that is anything but democratic the right way to go?

“The reason why we’re seeking to engage [with the junta] is that this is the best way to get our points across,” a source within the diplomatic community in Bangkok told Asian Correspondent. “We have ways to pressure them on certain issues. However, we are aware what impression this might give to the public.”

Indeed, the problem is that any engagements by foreign envoys with the junta could appear to give them legitimacy.

“Prayuth is coming here to collect his stamps of approval,” said Junya Yimprasert, an exiled Thai political activist, at a panel this past weekend at the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum (AEPF) in Milan*. Junya, who is organizing a protest of General Prayuth’s presence at ASEM on Thursday (which the Thai Foreign Ministry has anticipated), has called for ASEM not to let the Thai junta prime minister take part, which was echoed in the final declaration of the AEPF (PDF).

As Prayuth will be attending ASEM and meeting the same European leaders that have condemned him months ago, he will still have a tough time to convince everybody that it’s time to get back to normal (and it might take even longer, according to his own words).

Since he launched the military coup, assumed absolute power and sat about completely overhauling the political system, things in Thailand are far from being normal. You don’t have to be a foreign diplomat to figure that out. This time, Prayuth won’t be able to convince everybody.

*(Disclaimer: This author was one of the panelists at the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum at the invitation of the Asienhaus Foundation.)