Trying times ahead for Thai leadership

Trying times ahead for Thai leadership

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, centre, is surrounded by a crowd while attending a groundbreaking ceremony for a monument honouring the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great at a memorial park in Bangkok on Dec 5. AFP

In the Year of the Tiger, three prominent issues will determine Thailand’s future and its position in the region and among the international community.

These three are the leadership crisis and political developments on the homefront, Thailand’s perceived regional role, and its pro-active engagement with great powers.

For more than a decade, domestic factors have dragged the country down. Day-to-day political meddling and brinksmanship by leaders continue without any real prospect for tangible reform or progress in sight.

Internal instability backed by party politics has further damaged the country’s regional role, especially within the Asean framework. With the intensified rivalry and competition between the great powers, Thailand’s space to navigate its traditional independent diplomacy and balanced engagement is getting more difficult.

So can Thailand alter this business-as-usual trajectory?

The top issue is the fate of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and whether he will be able to remain in his position beyond Aug 24, 2022. The charter says that a prime minister cannot stay in office for more than eight years. Sooner or later, the Constitutional Court has to take up the issue to determine his tenure as all the political parties are eager to kick off electoral campaigns.

Across the aisle, the prime minister has repeatedly said that he would like to stay to host Apec 2022 and see through the 2023 budget.

The Apec leaders’ meeting will be held on Nov 30, 2022, in Phuket, so Gen Prayut will need a political miracle to stay on for that long. There are two major hurdles that he has yet to clear.

First, the possible dissolution of the Move Forward Party because of its alleged role in undermining the monarchy. This could lead to street protests as before, which would certainly turn violent. Second, the youth movement — stalled at present due to Covid-19 — would be further agitated if their favourite party were again disbanded.

Of course, the pandemic is not yet over. Its negative impacts are still on the top of the government’s agenda. Most of all, Thailand still needs to have its entire population of nearly 70 million fully vaccinated, not to mention its foreign guests and workers, which could number as high as 4-5 million.

No official data is available other than the registration of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, which already stands at almost 2 million while the rest remain are a part of an illegal workforce in numbers that we don’t fully know.

With the Omicron variant appearing less dangerous than its predecessors, Thailand hopes to move forward with the long-delayed peace process in the South, which began in earnest almost a decade ago.

There has been relatively less conflict in recent years but civilian casualties and the destruction of property remains high amid small-scale firefights and state surveillance operations at community levels in the three deep south provinces.

Yet peace dialogues have resumed in recent months.

The Malaysian government under Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has recently reinvigorated a policy of peaceful coexistence allowing for an acceleration of the peace process — of which Kuala Lumpur currently serves as a mediator — so to hopefully attain a much-needed ceasefire. Thailand has high expectations of Mr Ismail Sabri’s support.

On the regional front, as chair of Apec 2022, Thailand hopes to use the occasion to push and transform the economy.

Bangkok has already announced its intention to push Apec economies towards more sustainable growth and greener development. The host is also betting on a face-to-face visit with all Apec leaders later this year.

The upcoming year will be dominated by Asean’s role in trying to end the crisis in Myanmar. After the Feb 1 coup, Thailand, as a key member of Asean, has been blamed for not doing enough to either condemn the coup or to support democratic elements inside the country. But Thailand has remained active behind the scenes, especially in providing humanitarian assistance.

It’s not an overstatement to reiterate that Myanmar-related challenges inside Thailand are as serious as the current situation inside the western neighbour. Sharing a 2,401-km border, any disruption of the current status quo with the military junta could rear its ugly head in Thailand.

Indeed, conditions on the Thai-Myanmar border are deteriorating by the day due to a dry-season offensive by Tatmadaw forces against armed ethnic groups, particularly in areas under the control of the Karen National Union and in the North and Northeastern parts of the country.

The fighting in the past three weeks has resulted in new waves of villagers fleeing the conflict across into Tak province. Local authorities (supported by aid agencies) have been instructed to take care of new arrivals at the border without pushing them back, even if there is an absence of fighting.

It’s hoped that in the coming days, as the New Year kicks in, there will be efforts by all parties concerned to organise political dialogue to begin a consultative process, which could lead to a future ceasefire and other peaceful ways forward.

Thailand will work with the new Asean chair, Cambodia, to ensure that any breakthrough in Myanmar’s crisis has the blessing of Asean members. Prime Minister Hun Sun has made it clear that he would like to see Myanmar return to the grouping’s embrace. Myanmar’s leaders were prevented from attending the Asean-related summits after Nay Pyi Daw failed to implement a 5-point consensus agreed by Asean on April 27.

The military junta has reiterated that an election will be held in August 2023. Indeed, anything can happen between then if the situation on the ground changes dramatically. Asean’s dialogue partners, especially China, Japan, India, EU, Australia, and the US, are supporting ongoing efforts, through collaboration with Thailand, to help the people residing in all areas including those along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Finally, the health of the global system also hinges largely on the goodwill of the two superpowers: the US and China. Recently both have shown some reconciliatory spirit by agreeing to work together on issues related to climate change.

But they are still as stubborn as ever in their security postures and threat perceptions towards one another, which could accidentally lead to open conflict if their spat is allowed to continue and develop a life of its own. Nationalist sentiments are strong on both sides.

Within the region, Thailand and Asean have maintained good ties with the two dialogue partners. For decades, since the founding of Asean, the US presence and engagement with the region has been unquestionable — most importantly unchallengeable.

However, with China’s rising international clout, Beijing’s engagement with Asean has become more intense and strategic. This emerging trend has caused alarm among policymakers in Washington that Asean could fall under Chinese influence.

At Chongqing in June, Thailand proposed an idea of an Asean Plus Two Forum. It envisages the meeting of Asean representatives altogether with those from the US and China. It could start at the working level as a trust-building exercise before the forum could be further developed and involve senior officials in later dates. It is hoped the forum could serve as a platform for the two superpowers to find common ground.

The proposed forum could be held back to back with year-end Asean related summits. It’s possible that the Asean chair, Cambodia, could put this on the agenda at the Asean ministerial retreat on Jan 19 in Siem Reap.

These broad challenges are interwoven and could well have a domino effect on Thailand’s agency throughout 2022. Local mor du or soothsayers believe that the Year of the Tiger is a feisty and unyielding one, especially among key protagonists in political and economic arenas both at home and abroad.

Complacency of any kind will have huge ramifications. Certain bold decisions must be made to break through a variety of cul-de-sacs. It’s imperative that the government and the public maintain close consultative dialogues on a myriad of relevant issues, even if they agree to disagree.

Only a better understanding and appreciation of the country’s high national stakes can create a stronger sense of belonging and a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation among all stakeholders.