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With Prayut at helm, Asean being blown off course 

Jun 24. 2019
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By The Nation

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First major meeting under Thailand’s chairmanship revealed icebergs ahead for regional bloc

The weekend’s Asean summit ended with no concrete progress on maintaining the bloc’s centrality in the regional security architecture as Southeast Asia is gripped by global geo-political changes. And this is only one of several difficult tasks that will require all the energy, resourcefulness and skill that a new Thai government headed by an old face can muster in its year as Asean chair.

The summit had been due to take place much earlier, after Thailand took the Asean helm in January, but the junta’s carefully managed transition from military to nominal civilian rule meant the Asean get-together had to be postponed.

General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who staged a military coup in 2014 to topple an elected civilian government, duly retained power after a March 24 election conducted under the junta-sponsored Constitution and Election Commission.

Unfortunately, he hosted the weekend’s summit in Bangkok without a mandate from that election, since a new Cabinet has yet to be appointed.

More unfortunate still, despite five years’ experience of Asean meetings during his time as prime minister, Prayut appears not to have mastered even the very basics of diplomacy required by his new Asean role. The PM has demonstrated his poor command of the English language at international forums before, and so might have been forgiven for using a translator at the weekend. Instead another embarrassing attempt to speak the global lingua franca to his regional peers ended with him concluding, “thank you very much to hear”, rather than “thank you for your attention”.

Poor English, however, pales in comparison with another shortcoming. Prayut’s administration has never initiated any new direction in foreign policy, instead leaving everything in the hands of bureaucrats at the foreign ministry.

Worryingly, Foreign Minister and career diplomat Don Pramudwinai hinted recently that he wants to take a break after years of overwork. Indeed, Don has spent much effort and reputational credit in defending Prayut’s administration over its suppression of democracy and human rights violations.

To tackle the remaining tasks as Asean chair, Prayut and Thailand badly need a fresh vision of foreign affairs. The new government may still be under the old PM, but otherwise things have changed. It no longer needs to defend the military coup to the international community. Though by no means genuinely democratic, the new government is more or less made up of representatives of political parties who were elected and thus have a popular mandate.

In this regard, Prayut is not at liberty to rule by diktat as before. The new administration must take into account people’s demands and interests and, more importantly, present its outlook to the international community. In other words, while at the Asean helm, Prayut’s administration should reflect the mandate it draws from Thai citizens and represent their interests.

While Prayut may not be keen on following that course, his duty is to forward the demands of Thai and regional civil society and citizens at Asean forums. But in contrast, Asean leaders declined any contact with civic groups during the Bangkok summit. This omission should be corrected at the next major Asean meeting in November, before the end of Thailand’s tenure at the helm.

There is, however, no guarantee of that happening unless the new Thai government adopts a policy that is more in line with Asean’s claim to be a people-centred community. It’s time for Prayut to take stock and set a new platform that pushes forward Thailand and Asean for the mutual benefit of both, as well as that of all Asean citizens.

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