By Robert Held
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, an outgrowth of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement, was conceived in January 2008 and has since been the subject of much huffing and puffing amongst political pundits. Although the Thai government under Yingluck Shinawatra announced an interest in joining the TPP back in 2012, the current military dictatorship has been loudly unenthusiastic about the agreement. Until now. Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak indicated that they are now “very interested” in joining the TPP, claiming that their membership would help put the Kingdom on the trade bloc’s “radar screen.”
But is this a ploy by the ruling regime to buy time and wend its way into the good graces of its neighbors and the United States? It does seem that way, especially since Bangkok has been drawing flack from the international community after it began the latest in a long line of military dictatorships in late spring of 2014, after the overthrow of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
If reactions were muted at first, save for the odd strongly worded official communiqué, over the course of this summer, Thailand’s international standing took such a jarring nosedive that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) headed by General-cum-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was forced to do a somersault. Two key events may have contributed to Prayuth’s newfound embrace of free trade and international cooperation: the July release of the US State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and the deadly Erawan shrine bombings – both of which forced Thailand’s human rights situation out of hiding and plastered it across international media, and thus eroding the junta’s legitimacy to rule.
Already a recognized hub for human trafficking and home to almost half a million stateless people, the situation has only deteriorated since 2014 to such a degree that the United States State Department has downgraded Thailand to Tier 3 status in its 2015 TIP, the lowest possible ranking. The Tier 3 ranking, which is strenuously opposed by the military junta, is given to countries who, in the opinion of the US State Department, do not meet its “minimum standards” for preventing severe human trafficking, and are not making “significant efforts” to comply.
In late July, Prayuth, when asked if joining the TPP might help improve the Kingdom’s rank on the TIP, dismissed the notion, saying that the government is “doing [its] part” in the struggle against human trafficking, and that the Tier 3 ranking was nothing more than a politically motivated maneuver by the United States. The regime maintained its stance against joining the TPP as recently as last month, when Prayuth stated that it was not interested in joining.
That all changed after the August 17th bombing of the Erawan Shrine, which took the country and the junta by surprise, killing twenty people and injuring 125 others. Most victims were Chinese tourists, making the attack an international incident, and a burden that was poorly handled by the Royal Thai Police. Over the course of August, the authorities clumsily presented conflicting interpretations for the motives standing behind the pipe bomb that obliterated the temple, which reflected badly on the already shaky reputation of the Thai junta.
Since the Kingdom is a nightmare of government censorship, the official reactions to both the TIP report and the bombing were dramatically curtailed, worsening their standing in the international community. Since coming to power, the NCPO, which has de jure complete immunity, forced dissenting broadcasters off the air, ordered print media not to criticize the military government, and has blocked access to over two hundred websites for reasons of “national security.” Additionally, the NCPO has banned gatherings of more than five people, and anti-regime protestors have been arrested, tried by military courts, and sentenced to up to a year in prison. Critics of the monarchy have been dealt with even more harshly, with suspects held for months without trial, and, when eventually tried by military courts, have been sentenced to up to twenty-five years in prison.
The military dictatorship isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The National Reform Council (NRC), who is tasked with drafting Thailand’s twentieth constitution in less than a century, voted down the latest version presented to them this month, extending the NCPO’s rule till at least May 2017. After rejecting to explain the decision to reject the draft constitution, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam outlined a 20-month long path to democracy, despite the fact that quick elections were promised in the aftermath of the coup. There are no guarantees that the process will yield a constitution by that time either, as members of the NRC have indicated that military generals have exerted influence on the process, possibly in an effort to remain in power through an upcoming royal succession.
Within days of failing to adopt a constitution, the powers that be in Bangkok are suddenly singing a much different tune, which would explain why the country is now seeking to join hands with the TPP countries. Bracing themselves for the long haul, the junta is now hedging its bets by reframing the narrative: instead of being seen as a problem on the diplomatic arena, Bangkok is actually a partner for dialogue.
The timing of Thailand’s interest in jumping on board with the TPP is certainly convenient, if nothing else. It remains to be seen whether the other members of the trade deal are ready to associate themselves with the regime’s abysmal human rights record and abuse of civil liberties. But with this announcement, serious questions must be asked regarding the junta’s alleged commitment to democratic reforms, lest this late interest in participation is merely a contract with the West for the sale of more time.
Robert Held is a financial consultant formerly resident in Thailand who now lives in Geneva, Switzerland.