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Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha must be enthusiastic about attending the ASEAN leaders’ biannual summit in Phnom Penh next month, especially for the session on measures to end the Myanmar junta’s killings and oppression.
Prayuth’s nearly unconditional support for junta leader Gen. Aung Min Hlaing has made it more difficult for the regional leaders to reach decisive agreements because they know Prayuth with come to Hlaing’s rescue. Prayuth’s failure to change his attitude will be damaging to the central role Thailand has long played in ASEAN.
When President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo hosted an ASEAN emergency summit in Jakarta on April 24, 2021, the Thai premier did not turn up, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and his busy schedule. At the summit, Gen. Hlaing vowed to comply with a five-point consensus that included the immediate cessation of violence against civilians and a dialogue with all concerned parties in Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi. After arriving home, however, Hlaing refused to carry out his pledge.
After seizing power from the democratically elected government of Su Kyi in February 2021, Hlaing immediately contacted Prayuth asking for guidance on how to stay in power. Hlaing came to the very right person, not only because Prayuth was his close friend, but also because the Thai Army general himself toppled the elected civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
Prayuth holds a unique position among ASEAN leaders but is similar to the Myanmar’s junta leader. Prayuth launched a coup against prime minister Yingluck, the sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2014. In 2017, Prayuth appointed himself the Thai prime minister.
A questionable general election in 2019 granted him another four years of rule. Last month, the Constitutional Court rejected demands from opposition parties for an end to Prayuth’s premiership. The opposition groups had argued that the prime minister had already completed his constitutional limit of eight years in power, counting his time as coup leader. The court said the term limit law had come into force in 2017 and that, therefore, Prayuth would only reach his term limit in 2025.
Thailand plans to hold a general election next year, as does Myanmar.
Thailand is also very familiar with military coups and constitutional amendments. The country has seen 13 successful and nine unsuccessful coups. It has also revised its Constitution 20 times. Despite its political vulnerability, the country remains stable and its economy continues to grow.
Next month in Cambodia, ASEAN leaders will host meetings with their dialogue partners from China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and Russia. The endless atrocities in Myanmar will be an important topic of discussion. Hopefully this time around, the Thai leader will distance himself from Hlaing for the sake of Myanmar’s people and ASEAN unity.
Several ASEAN leaders have expressed their intention to get tougher on the Myanmar junta, and the group has barred Gen. Hlaing from attending next month’s summit. Unwavering support for the Myanmar junta will cost Thailand its traditionally strong influence in the regional grouping.
If that happens, it will be big a loss not just for Thailand but also ASEAN. The bloc was established in Bangkok on Aug. 8, 1967. Since then, Thailand, the only nation in the region that has never been a colony of foreign forces, has always played a decisive role in ASEAN. It plays the leadership role especially for the other ASEAN countries where the Mekong River flows: Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
ASEAN foreign ministers are scheduled to hold a special session this month to issue their recommendations to their leaders ahead of their summit in Phnom Penh next month. They are now closer to the opinion that tougher action against Myanmar’s military regime is unavoidable. They will no longer wait for Gen. Hlaing to repent.
These bolder measures are supported by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, while Malaysia. Cambodia and Brunei will be unlikely to resist the initiative, as the Myanmar junta has upset them. An option to suspend Myanmar’s ASEAN membership is not impossible, especially if the leaders agree to amend the 2007 ASEAN Charter with regard to the non-interference principle.
President Jokowi, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yakoob and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have openly expressed their support for dealing directly with Myanmar’s ousted leader Suu Kyi and the military. New Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr has also voiced a similar view.
After taking over ASEAN’s chairmanship from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen next month, President Jokowi will be in a stronger position to facilitate more decisive action against the Myanmar junta. Prayuth can exercise his power and influence to convince Myanmar to follow ASEAN’s way, or else ASEAN will punish it.
Thailand has been generally silent about the Myanmar issue. In representing Prayuth at the UN General Assembly in New York last month, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said in his address to the UN Assembly that as an immediate neighbor to Myanmar, Thailand had a vital interest in seeing a quick return to peace and stability in Myanmar.
“Thailand fully supports the constructive role of ASEAN and believes that ASEAN is best placed to help Myanmar through the time-tested ASEAN practice of consultation, cooperation and consensus. Thailand will continue to play an active and constructive role to support this ASEAN process,” Don said.
The statement, however, was too general and lacked clarity as to whether Thailand would throw its weight behind bolder ASEAN moves against Myanmar.
Thailand used to play a key role in the policy-making of ASEAN. During the years-long negotiations among the warring parties in Cambodia in the 1980s and early 1990s, Indonesia was the chief negotiator, but without strong support from Thailand, as well as Vietnam, long-lasting peace would never have returned to Cambodia.
Now it is time for Prayuth to demonstrate his statesmanship. He must work together with other ASEAN leaders to help Myanmar’s people gain freedom from the military’s oppression and atrocities.
The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.
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