EU Vows to ‘Re-Engage’ With Thailand, With Conditions

Protesters light candles Sunday at Bangkok's Democracy Monument next to posters which reading #ThinkingOfDemocracy and #DespisedDictatoship. Photo: Noppakaw Kongsuwan
Protesters light candles Sunday at Bangkok's Democracy Monument next to posters which reading #ThinkingOfDemocracy and #DespisedDictatoship. Photo: Noppakaw Kongsuwan

BANGKOK — While the military government welcomes an EU decision to seek “gradual political re-engagement” with Thailand “at all levels,” those in the pro-democracy camp had a mixed response.

Some expressed disappointment Tuesday what they perceive to be the European Union prioritizing trade and warned of negative repercussions, while at least one activist greeted the move as good news.

Among 14 points enumerated Monday in a statement from the Council of the European Union in Brussels was the gradual resumption of political contacts “in order to facilitate meaningful dialogue on issues of mutual importance, including on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the road towards democracy.”

It signals a reversal from the strong EU reaction three and a half years ago, when Brussels condemned the coup, suspended all official visits to the kingdom and put all important agreements on hold. Back in June 2014, EU ministers expressed “extreme concern” about the coup.

The EU statement now cited the promulgation of the 2017 military-sponsored constitution and junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s promise to hold elections in November 2018 as reasons to resume ties. Another reason cited was the Thai military’s 2016 decision “to phase out the practice of prosecuting civilians before military courts” in some cases “including for offences against internal security and lese majeste offences.”

The communique also explores the possibilities of resuming talks on an EU-Thailand Free Trade Agreement. It stressed, however, that the signing of such an agreement and others could only resume with a democratically elected civilian government.

The news was hailed today by junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Some in the pro-democracy movement who want the international community to more actively oppose the junta were not happy about the news.

“Personally, I am definitely disappointed,” said Virot Ali, a Thammasat University international relations lecturer. Virot predicted it signals a weaker stance from Europe on human rights and democracy.

“While they wait [for elections], I do not want to see them close an eye [to what’s happening],” Virot said, adding that the change likely stems from a belief the carrot approach is more effective than using the stick. Virot warned that election promises should not be held as paramount as the quality of democratic institutions afterward are vital.

Virot said however it’s unfair to expect the European Union to do all the pressuring while pro-democracy Thais do nothing.

“I have chatted with a number of ambassadors,” he said. “It boils down to the point that they can’t really do anything if Thais themselves don’t make a move.”

Sharing disappointment was Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University. “I think it’s bad news for democracy,” the dean said in an interview Tuesday. “The Western world is focusing more on economic interests than human rights. This may delay democratic progress in Thailand.”

Titipol said a positive reading of the news is that the announcement is an attempt to cajole anbd keep the junta to its promise of holding elections.

Still, Titipol said citing the promised election is “rather naive” on part of the EU as the junta has broken numerous electoral promises in the past.

“Even though it has been announced, there’s no confirmation. What’s more, said the dean, elections under the junta-sponsored charter are more like a mechanism to enable the military to remain in power with a veneer of legitimacy and no mechanisms to foster democracy, human rights and freedom of expression.

“The EU stated that there were positive trends on part of the military regime. I think it’s more like a justification,” Titipol said, adding that the United Kingdom, which is leaving the EU, is already doing this.

Taking a contradictory view and welcoming the move was pro-democracy activist Nuttaa Mahattana, who on Sunday helped lead about 100 demonstrators to the Democracy Monument to demand power be returned to the people.

“I think it’s good news and encouraging,” Nutta said.

The EU statement could help shine a spotlight on human rights violations in Thailand.

“Any light shining is better than none,” she said.

“It’s like there are goons in our house and someone is putting a spotlight on them. Can we really say this is not good?” said Nutta, who praised specific problems the EU statement detailed about the military regime.

“Being specific is better than being silent and allowing them to do whatever they like,” Nutta said.

One of the organizations supported by the EU is Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Sirikan Charoensiri, a lawyer and member of the group who just attended the EU-NGO Human Rights Forum in Brussels said it’s too soon to judge the move.

Sirikan pointed out that Brussels came up with more concrete benchmarks in its demands for the military regime.

Some selections from the statement:

“The [European] Council urges the Thai authorities not to prosecute civilians before military courts including for lese majeste offences committed before 12 September 2016.”

The European Council also reiterates its call for the “urgent restoration of the democratic process in Thailand through credible and inclusive elections and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It also noted in point No. 3 that: “The Council recalls with concern that political and civil rights and liberties have been severely curtailed in Thailand following the 2014 military coup. … The Council stresses the importance of such basic freedoms being restored as Thailand proceeds towards democracy, and reiterates the importance it attaches to the role of civil society in a functioning democracy.”

Point No. 12 of the statement also noted that relations with Thailand will be under review with particular emphases on areas such as lifting of restrictions on freedom of expression and the media as well as freedom of assembly and association, the lifting of restrictions on political activity.