The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) military junta of Thailand has delayed lifting severe restrictions on free expression, association, and assembly, despite the national election held in March 2019. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha still wields power unhindered by administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability, including for serious human rights violations. Acting on the junta’s orders, authorities have routinely enforced censorship and threatened media outlets with punishment and closure if they publicize information critical of military rule and the monarchy or raised issues considered to be sensitive to national security. Peace TV was temporarily shut down in February and May 2018 for failing to comply with such regulations. Voice TV’s outspoken news talk programs “Tonight Thailand” and “Wake Up News” were forced off the air for 15 days in March and for 30 days in September.
Military junta continued to prosecute its critics under the sedition law and the Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA). Since the 2014 coup, at least 92 people have been charged with sedition. In February, authorities charged an outspoken politician, Watana Muangsook, with sedition and for violating the CCA for his Facebook posts in support of pro-democracy activists’ demands for a free and fair election.
Another “Cambodia” in Sinosphere
Statista, an online statistics website, reported last month that Cambodia and Laos are among the countries owing external loan debt to China at a level above 25 percent of its GDP. The two ASEAN member states and neighbors joined countries like Niger, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan and the Maldives in similar situations.
Sihanoukville, a once-sleepy city in Cambodia having its only deep-water port, part of a vital trade route for Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road development initiative, has become a focal point for Chinese investment. Vast Chinese-run construction projects are visible across almost every area of the city and its high streets are now lined with majority-Chinese businesses and restaurants. Cambodian Prime minister Hun Sen’s gleeful willing embrace of Chinese investment, unlike neighboring country Vietnam, has ensured Cambodia is at the core of belt and road plans in Southeast Asia. The southern coast of Cambodia is now home to $4.2bn worth of power plants and offshore oil operations all owned by Chinese companies.
Cashing on an unlikely but prospectively profitable venture, Chinese casino owners have also taken advantage of the nonexistent gambling regulation and lax money-laundering laws, to set up an empire that is accessible only to foreigners. However, here comes the split side of the pseudo-lucrative signs to the whole story. Chinese residents and visitors buy from Chinese businesses and visit Chinese restaurants and hotels, ensuring the trickle-down effect is minimal. This fact is now emerging in all the places where Chinese economic colonization has started bearing consequences. The returns go-to Chinese economy, while robbing the country of its existing business environment.
Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative has come under fire in countries including Sri Lanka and Malaysia, for infrastructure projects that were seen as providing little benefit for the host nations while saddling them with heavy debts. Thailand’s military junta that seized power in Thailand in a 2014 coup has embraced this Chinese alliance, promising a 1.7 trillion-baht ($53 billion) investment to develop three coastal provinces close to the capital — Chachoengsao, Chon Buri, and Rayong.
Charoen Pokphand Group Co (CP Group in fact a century-old Thai Clan) is a main conduit for the Chinese investment in Thailand and is hands in hands with Military Junta a CP-led consortium including China Railway Construction Corp. was the lowest bidder for a 225 billion-baht contract to build a 200-kilometer (124-mile) rail network linking Bangkok’s two international airports and another near Pattaya with an industrial zone on the eastern coast. The group is also bidding on airport zone.
This family fortune is Thailand’s biggest at $20.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, bolstered by CP’s stake in Chinese insurer Ping an Insurance Group, which has tripled in value since the company acquired the shares in 2012. This Thai clan is one of many with Chinese shadows in Southeast Asia, including the Sys in the Philippines and Robert Kuok in Malaysia.
This family has in its hands the reins of the ruling party, along with supposedly, the Military Junta. The Present Prayut Chan-o-cha government reduced the living space of political parties, weakened the influence of political groups, diluted the right to vote for the prime minister, and granted the highest privileges to Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)
Hence we see that the Thai military government continues to exercise full governmental powers at the behest of China. A situation pretty much akin also to Pakistan backed Military governments since the beginning of this Decade. Hence Thailand shall find itself donning a similar Sold-Face as Pakistan does now, in fact very much sooner.
Thailand’s Journey to Sinosphere
China just was not in a position, until the early 2000s, to engage with Thailand on a level similar to that of the United States. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for nearly six years beginning in 2001, gradually begun the process of being enveloped in the sphere of China-backed CP Group, energetically abused and packed or sidelined newly created courts and commissions, co-opted or intimidated the media, suppressed dissent and neutered the political opposition. His human rights record, with Cold War-inspired counterinsurgency tactics and a murderous “war on drugs,” was alarming.
Thaksin’s tenure served as a template for his six successors, all of whom were bankrolled by CP Group and its tertiary. Two were installed by the military, two by the polls, and two by parliament. Half were Thaksin proxies, half his sworn opponents. But all followed his lead in rolling back the rule of law, treating transparency and accountability with contempt, and responding to long-suppressed voices with more rights violations or violence.
The most recent prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, accelerated Thailand’s democratic retreat by leading a Chinese backed military coup in 2014, and then institutionalized it: a new constitution legitimizing his coup and preserving summary executive power, a 20-year National Strategy to which all subsequent governments must adhere, and electoral rules all but ensuring that future premiers will be selected by the military.
With this masterstroke of 20-year National Strategy, irrespective of a democratic alliance, Thailand is bound to be in China’s grand scheme of things.
Beijing has been equally aggressive in exporting its model and expanding links in Thailand, touting its influence and interests as mutually reinforcing; two sides of the same coin. Thailand’s embrace of the China Model has facilitated economic, military, political, diplomatic, cultural, and regional initiatives — the results of which have further convinced Thais that “authoritarian capitalism” is preferable to a pluralistic and inefficient democracy.
China has also clearly recognized Thailand’s two coups since 2006, both in terms of appreciating a forceful response to the disorder that preceded them, and of readily engaging with the illegitimate governments that resulted. Powerful proof of the China Model’s appropriation in Thailand, the coups have uniquely contributed to the advance of Chinese interests.
It is past time India, U.S. and other democracies push back against the China Model in Thailand, with a similar approach that sees their ideology and interests as mutually reinforcing priorities. Thailand has moved into China’s orbit, and this trajectory is unlikely to change. But it is still possible that if Thailand was ever was to return to real democracy, given the Pro-Democracy sentiments simmering since 2014 and seen with population’s pro-Hong Kong protests stand, there might be space for a reversal of China-Thailand shady relationship. Later the elected Thai leaders might be more cautious than the generals in accepting greater aid and back door hold-ups from Beijing. Hence it is essential that regional players like India, Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea up their engagement with what that it is, in the interest of Thai and the balance of pro-democracy opposition leaders across the spectrum from red to yellow, till such time the US decides to play up in the region, again.
26 Nov 19/Tuesday Written by Fayaz