Some pundits have wondered if the cave rescue has made the military dictatorship more popular internationally and more “electable” domestically. We don’t know the answer to those questions, but we do know that authoritarian regimes have long felt comfortable dealing with Thailand’s military junta and that the West, moving rapidly to the right, has sought to re-engage with the regime.
An op-ed – The Rest of the World Has Warmed to Thailand’s Military Rulers – by Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, addresses the “warming” to the regime that has been seen in recent times.
Despite the junta embedding itself for the long term, delaying “elections” and engaging in widespread repression, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha “has been welcomed in many leading Western democracies.” Worse, he observes that “[f]rom Europe to Australia to the United States, countries have largely dropped their efforts at pressuring the Thai government [to civilianize], even while Thailand’s political crisis stretches on indefinitely.”
After the 2014 military coup, “[m]any democratic states took a relatively harsh line toward Bangkok,” that’s changed. The countries in Europe, the U.S. and Australia are now moderately supportive of Thailand’s military regime.
President Donald Trump hosted The Dictator at the White House in October 2017. No surprise there, but the “Obama administration had already begun normalizing those military-to-military ties.”
Kurlantzick observes that “European states and other major democracies have acted similarly.” The EU re-established “all political links with Thailand” in late 2017. In March, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed Prayuth “reversing the Australian travel ban on top junta leaders.”
The author doesn’t note it, but Turnbull has moved rapidly to the right, adopting policies that the military regime in Thailand would appreciate.
In June, “Prayuth took his first trip to Europe since the easing of EU sanctions on Thailand. He met British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, along with a wide range of business leaders.” May heads a government that is engaged in a Brexit debate that sees the right gaining ground, recent events notwithstanding. Linked to post-Brexit needs, “Prayuth and May agreed to relaunch talks on a free trade agreement.”
Kurlantzick observes that “[f]or all the junta’s attempts to boost its image abroad, the political environment in Thailand is still as repressive as it has been since 2014.” It is the other countries that are rushing to the right and thus having no qualms about embracing repressive military regimes.
Another factor involved has been the panic over China: “the junta has pointed to its growing ties with China, which did not condemn the coup, as a reminder to other leading powers that Thailand has alternatives for investment, aid and diplomatic and military ties.”
This causes some Western countries to ditch human rights concerns in the interests of checking China. It’s all a bit Cold War like.
China’s influence is not new and has been on the rise in Thailand, as it has elsewhere, but the junta still craves “balancing” as much as it does “bending,” and it is the junta that has made overtures to the West.
And, as ever, business is interested in profits rather than human rights, making Thailand attractive as it is at the heart of a broader ASEAN region.
For all these reasons the West feels the need to cosy up with the nastiest of regimes.