By The Nation
As Thailand prepares take the helm of Asean for 2019, you would expect political parties to be promoting their platforms for regional leadership ahead of the upcoming election.
Surprisingly, no party has offered clear policies on how to steer the half-century-old regional grouping – which was born in Thailand – forward. All of them recognise that Asean sits at the core of Thai foreign policy, and all want Thailand to play a significant role in international affairs. But how?
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who appears desperate to retain power post-election, is deemed the weakest factor for Thailand’s foreign affairs’ ambitions. As an unelected head of state, his standing is already low in the eyes of the diplomatic community and international media.
Prayut’s performance chairing several international forums, including for the Group of 77 and the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy, hasn’t helped his cause. Rather than using summit press conferences to offer incisive ideas on Thailand’s role in foreign affairs, Prayut has wasted valuable time in the global spotlight ridiculing political opponents, media representatives and critics.
The PM has shown little interest or vision in international affairs, an oversight also exhibited by the political party that now supports him. Instead, that party, which is almost certain to nominate Prayut as a candidate for prime minister, has focused on spending the national budget in a campaign tantamount to buying votes in advance. It is exploiting the very populist policy it claimed to disdain in order to secure political support.
Prayut’s government has indeed made preparations for taking the Asean chairmanship next year, but these are simply routine. The same bureaucratic groundwork could be laid with or without a government in place. The theme of the Thai chairmanship – “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability” – sounds both grand and empty.
Prayut’s words on being handed the Asean baton in Singapore last month were equally banal. Showing no special insight on global affairs, he spent most of his speech explaining the meaning of the Thai symbol for Asean chairmanship. The Phuang Malai, or flower garland, is commonly used in Thailand to welcome and honour our guests, he said.
His statements since have mostly been on the same theme, telling Thai citizens to be good hosts to their Asean guests. If he did manage to retain the government top job, Thais should not humiliate him with protests, he said.
In fact, Asean badly needs to reassert its relevance amid an era of growing geo-political turbulence. A raft of tough pending issues demand strong leadership. The Rakhine crisis, a code of conduct for the South China Sea, and negotiation for the
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are all at a critical stage, requiring Asean to take action for the benefit of the whole region.
International and Asean affairs have never been a focus of political campaigning in Thailand, but that should change as we prepare to take the regional helm.
Granted, policies on Asean have never generated many votes for the parties, but things could be different if millions of Thai voters were given the knowledge of what’s at stake.
It is crucial that Thai voters and the wider international community are shown a vision for Asean by the parties that are now seeking to lead it and Thailand.
Prayut has given ample proof that he is not up to that job. It’s time for other parties to step up to the plate.