BANGKOK — The European Union will consider dispatching election observers next year only if invited by the military regime, according to the union’s top official in Thailand.
Speaking a day ahead of Europe Day celebrations, EU Ambassador Pirkka Tapiola said the presence of EU election observers will depend upon the initiative and interest of the Thai side.
Asked why the union would not push the junta to allow such observers, Tapiola, who’s been on the job since December, discounted strong-arm tactics as counter-productive.
“Would you think that kind of approach would get us very far?” said the diplomat, who was posted to Bangkok in the 1990s and is well-acquainted with the kingdom.
Veteran elections observer Pongsak Chanan, who works in Bangkok at the Asian Network for Free and Fair Elections, a nonprofit monitoring group, said the remark shows an EU interest in dispatching observers legitimized by the Thai government and fears being viewed as interfering in Thai domestic affairs.
Pongsak added that the presence of EU observers would increase and help protect Thai voters right to free and fair elections. He urged the government to extend an invitation to all international observers.
Asked what will the EU do if the promised elections are delayed again, Tapiola declined to answer but expressed hope the junta sticks to its timeline.
Despite the gradual resumption of ties at all levels following the promulgation of the new constitution and junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha assurances his “roadmap” to elections would soon reach its destination, the ambassador insisted that the state of Thai-EU relations would remain under review. He hopes that lifting restrictions on political activities will happen “in good time.”
Comprised of 28 member states, the EU’s first mission in Southeast Asia was created in Bangkok in 1979, which the ambassador said shows how important the kingdom is to Europe.
“We are the third largest foreign investors,” Tapiola said, adding that the union is also the second largest destination for Thai investment.
As for the proposed Thai-EU Free Trade Agreement, Tapiola reiterated that any such agreement could only be reached with an elected government. He later clarified that formal negotiations would only begin after an elected government was in power.
Still, he hopes it will materialize within three years while he still heads the EU delegation.
“I would wish to pray for the gods of all religions – and the negotiators – that we would be there [in three years]. That would be fabulous.”
On the historical and cultural fronts, the ambassador pointed to long ties between European states and Thailand. Portugal is celebrating 500 years of Thai relations this year, and the historic-steeped riverside ambassador residences belonging to the French and Portuguese. As for tourist arrivals from Europe, the ambassador said they’ve been on the rise with 4.8 million such visits in 2016.
“I have an ambition that by the time I leave, our relationship would be on a very, very different level,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that EU Ambassador Tapiola said Thai-EU free trade negotiations were “back on track.” In fact, as of June 8, 2018, no talks have been held.