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International relations

Thai military regime seeks political legitimacy in Europe

Despite diplomatic thaw, Prayuth unlikely to make much progress on free trade pact

BANGKOK -- After being left out in the cold for over four years, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is visiting London and Paris this week to meet the heads of the British and French governments in an apparent bid to build Thailand's credibility in Europe.

Although he will not be visiting Brussels, the seat of the European Union, Prayuth's five-day visit from June 20 indicates a softer stance in Europe toward his military government, which came to power after a coup in 2014. It may also in part be an acknowledgement of his pledge in late 2017 to hold a general election.

Ties with most Western nations were put on ice after the coup, but the gruff former army chief met with U.S. President Donald Trump in October and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in March.

Prayuth looks unlikely to make much headway on a long-sought free trade agreement with the EU, however, as many Western countries remain reluctant to forge such pacts with an unelected government.

Some Southeast Asian analysts argue that Prayuth hails from an undemocratic region full of countries with serious political problems that have not been shunned by the EU. These include Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, and Myanmar, where the military continues to wield strong influence.

The Thai regime sees such comparisons as beneficial. During meetings with British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, Prayuth is expected to try and buff his international profile by talking about his "road map" to democracy, even though no date has yet been set for an election, and it is not now expected to occur before February 2019.

"The road map so far has included a constitutional referendum in 2016, the drafting and consideration of the by-laws, and the work of independent agencies such as the elections commission in determining such issues as the date of the general election," Lt Gen. Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, a government spokesman, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Progress on having the polls is developing according to the road map."

European diplomats confirm that some of these "positive" developments have shaped the emerging EU position on Thailand. "The carrot being extended to Prayuth is part of a gradual political re-engagement to pave the way for a deeper dialogue on issues of mutual importance," one European diplomat told Nikkei.

Members of the EU will nevertheless continue to advocate basic freedoms and rights as benchmarks of Thailand's return to democracy. "The EU has noted with concern that political and civil rights and liberties have been severely curtailed in Thailand following the coup," the diplomat said.

Prayuth is also likely to feel some heat over the gap between his rhetoric and the reality on the ground, where political parties are still banned from meeting their members, debating policies, or staging large gatherings.

"During his recent visit to Thailand, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reiterated the importance of a return to democracy," said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British diplomat who is now a Thailand-based academic. "I would expect this point to be made again in London and Paris."

Prayuth's European hosts could also be reminded of opposition to his regime, which brooks little dissent at home. Groups of critical Thais living abroad are planning protests in London and Paris. One group wants to flag the Thai military's record of corruption, a move that is bound to irritate the thin-skinned generals.

"Ms May and Mr Macron should be prepared to give Gen. Prayuth an earful about Thailand's abysmal human rights record and why his deliberate dawdling on restoring civilian rule is damaging Thailand's reputation and hurting Thai people," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, in a letter to the Bangkok Post newspaper.

Prayuth is nevertheless keen to promote trade and attract investment to what remains the second largest economy in Southeast Asia. The military regime has a list of potential big-ticket investors it wants to attract to the Eastern Economic Corridor, a $43 billion flagship investment project to develop high-tech industries along the country's Eastern Seaboard and further inland. "I am not going for my own good," Prayuth said recently. "I am going for the country's sake."

The EU is Thailand's third largest trading partner after China and Japan. In 2015, according to available reports, Thailand exported $23 billion in goods to the EU with imports of $15.80 billion.

Since the diplomatic thaw in late 2017, Thai officials have talked up the possibility of resuming negotiations for a Thailand-EU free trade agreement, which had been through four rounds prior to the coup. European diplomats familiar with the discussions say such optimism is misplaced. The EU's position remains that negotiations will remain frozen until an elected government emerges.

Prayuth will have his work cut out in Europe to change this position.

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