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Politics

Thailand's coup leader works to win over EU's diplomats

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Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, center, his wife Naraporn Chan-ocha, second from right, and members of the Thai cabinet pray for the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Siriraj hospital in Bangkok, on Oct. 6.   © Reuters

BRUSSELS -- Thailand's military leaders may have swapped their army fatigues for silk suits after their May 22 coup, but at least in Europe, some governments have indicated that the newly established class of civilian-styled generals is not fooling anyone. Indeed, Thailand's National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta is known, has not won European support as readily as it has forged new ties with regional powers such as China and neighbors including Myanmar. In a show of neighborly camaraderie, Myanmar President Thein Sein hosted the coup leader, now prime minister, Prayuth Chan-Ocha on his first official visit abroad on Oct. 9-11.

     Even Japan, which initially expressed grave concern about the undermining of democratic processes in Thailand, has invited Prayuth for an official visit in coming weeks. 

     The European Union, complete with a newly elected executive branch that takes up its role from early November, nevertheless has some hard decisions ahead. Thai leaders including Prayuth will attend the Asia-Europe Summit in Milan on Oct. 16-17, and are expecting to meet President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and President of the European Commission Jose-Manuel Barroso, among other senior EU officials, as well as leaders of EU member countries. There is also speculation about a possible bilateral meeting between Prayuth and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on the sidelines of the summit.

     All the while, Thailand is busy behind the scenes preparing to take on a rotating role within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as coordinator between Asean and the EU from July 2015.

     More important, perhaps, are frozen talks over a Thai-EU free trade agreement, painstakingly negotiated and left in limbo following strong condemnation from Brussels in the immediate aftermath of the coup.

     Despite two earlier rounds of talks, EU officials say there are currently no plans to bring the Thai government back to the negotiating table on the trade pact, at least not until the country commits to holding elections and installing a democratically elected government.

     "Plans for further negotiations are nonexistent at this point. There's no plan for the next round to be held," said one EU trade official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Credibility gap

Since the May coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the EU has also suspended official visits and put military cooperation under review.

     Conclusions from the Council of the European Union in June indicated that all 28 EU members were reconsidering the status of their relationships with Thailand at a time when a weak recovery at home and tit-for-tat sanctions from Russia were putting strains on the euro area economy.

     "We cannot go back to 'business as usual' under the current circumstances," said a senior EU official commenting on Europe's relationship with Thailand. "The coup may give short-term stability, but in the medium term, it could become worse."

     Although the Thai junta has drawn up a reform "road map" toward free and fair elections next year, the country's new rulers have also emphasized their intention to completely overhaul the country's democratic electoral system -- a process that could make it harder for the majority of Thailand's rural inhabitants to vote for and elect the populist party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

     European officials say Thailand must tread very carefully or risk losing credibility abroad, particularly in Europe.

     "We have Council conclusions from June and they still stand," the senior EU official said, noting small signs that Europe is willing to at least listen to the junta's plans.

     "There is a level of re-engagement coming from their side and you see the same development coming cautiously from our side," the official continued, referring to a Sept. 24 visit by the EU's ambassador to Thailand and meeting with Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragon in Bangkok. "This is really only a very cautious re-engagement to see if dialogue would be possible."

 

   The question raised by many -- in both Bangkok and Brussels -- is how far will the Thai junta be able to push things before the EU contemplates further action. Looking at how long it took the EU to implement tougher sanctions on Russia for its role in destabilizing eastern Ukraine, Thailand so far feels it has plenty of leeway.

      "The relations between Thailand and the EU are so strong that nobody can just simply cut them. It's not that easy," said a senior Thai diplomat in Brussels. "Europe has to think about its interests as well."

     Thailand is the EU's third-largest trading partner among Asean and EU members. The EU is also Thailand's third largest trading partner. Trade between them in 2012 reached nearly 32 billion euros (currently about $40.5 billion), according to the European Commission. The EU is also one of the largest investors in Thailand with investment stocks worth over 14 billion euros as of the end of 2011.

     Still, it remains to be seen if the junta's "road map" of reform will be taken seriously by the broader world.

Critical actions

Thailand is urging the EU to take a longer-term view of the situation and recognize that protests in downtown Bangkok between November and May were having severe consequences. Economic growth all but ground to a halt as violence escalated. People were dying in the streets and efforts to reconcile longstanding differences between the country's "red" and "yellow" factions representing the two leading parties proved futile.

     "We think this is a good way out of the conflict. We want the EU to think of the long term," the Thai diplomat in Brussels said, confirming there was a "serious public relations effort" underway in Brussels and beyond to convince foreign partners of the junta's objectives.

     In Belgium, home to many of Europe's key institutions, Thailand has launched an orchestrated and at times confrontational PR mission to tackle criticism of the junta, whose members have been accused of putting dozens of civilians on trial in military courts.

     At a Brussels event held by the German think tank Konrad-Ardenauer-Stiftung in June, a group of Thai embassy officials arrived in force with the clear intent of countering views put forward by Japan-based Thai intellectual and dissident Pavin Chachavalpongpun. In the aftermath of the coup, Pavin was stripped of his citizenship.

     Like numerous other critics, Pavin, an associate professor at Japan's Kyoto University, questioned the army's commitment to implementing real reform. He also underlined the possibility that the tightness of military rule was linked to public apprehension over royal succession, amid concerns about the frail health of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The crown prince is not nearly as popular as the revered monarch.

Limited fall-out?

Despite questions and criticism of the junta's motives and track record on human rights, the fallout in the international community could have been far worse.

     On Oct. 2, Prayuth met with Minoru Kiuchi, Japan's vice foreign minister, and reportedly told him that efforts were being made to ensure Japan's participation in the long-stalled Dawei Special Economic Zone in southern Myanmar.

     The EU's business commitments to Thailand are also expected to remain strong. In July, Rolf-Dieter Daniel, president of the European Asean Business Center, said the EU's decision to scale back ties with Thailand was "merely symbolic."

     The Asian Development Bank recently cut its forecast for Thailand's annual economic growth to 1.6% this year -- from an earlier 2.9% -- and predicted it would rise to 4.5% next year.

     Europe, meanwhile, will eventually have to decide whether it believes the junta's pledge to bring back a democratically elected leadership. Prayuth's imminent meetings with European leaders in Milan could prove pivotal when trying to steer international opinion in his favor.

     Other European critics, however, are also expressing doubts about Thailand's new leadership.

     "The army is defending its own interests. They are not going to make the same mistakes as they did in 1992 and 2006," said David Camroux, a senior lecturer in Asian Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, referring to years during which coups also took place but a civilian government was quikly restored. "Behind the apparent calm is turbulence ahead."

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