Thursday, 9 July 2015

The West should not sanction Thailand

Recently there has been much commentary explaining why countries such as Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom should implement harsh and drastic sanctions on Thailand and its military lead government. Although in theory this would be a victory for human rights and democracy, it is an immensely simplistic argument, neglecting the fragile geopolitical landscape of Asia. Human rights abuses in Thailand have increased under the current government and there has been a significant hinderance to the freedom of speech recently, however, even now in the hands of a military government, Thailand's actions are not that different to other countries throughout the region.  

As tensions continue to rise and China asserts more influence throughout Asia, it has never been more important for countries such as the United States to retain strategic partnerships, and Thailand is a pivotal player in this partnership. It is obvious the military government in Thailand is attempting to forge closer ties with China, and this should be allowed, however it should not be at the expense of the U.S - Thailand relationship. 

Perhaps it is worth looking at the case of Fiji, and how Australia and New Zealand implemented sanctions on the small Pacific nation after the 2006 coup. Sanctions that did absolutely nothing other than shutting down much needed and appropriate channels of communication. Fiji quickly forged strong relationships with China, India, Brazil and other regional players, demonstrating a significant benefit the sanctions had on Fiji’s ability to form other strategic relationships. 

There is also the issue that sanctions handed out by western countries are rarely harsh enough to inflict damage/punishment and are often half hearted and token. Thus meaning sanctions will have little or no affect on Thailand other than pushing it towards forming other bilateral relations.  

There is also the question of why sanctions are justified on Thailand and not on other Asian countries that have troubling human rights records and significant issues with democratic procedures and principles. Why Thailand, is it really the 'worst' behaving country in the region? For example Singapore and Malaysia are often criticised for human rights breaches and are far from democratic. Australia has recently removed some sanctions from Myanmar, even though the government in Myanmar has little regard for human rights and democracy. Australia recently declared Cambodia a country that "...respects the rule of law and human rights...", even though anyone with any understanding of Cambodia clearly knows the Cambodian government has little regard for human rights. The United Sates is seeking stronger economic and military ties with Vietnam, even though there is a significant disregard for human rights and democratic principles there. 

Do not get me wrong, I oppose the coup in Thailand, however it is worth understanding some of the justifications for the coup. It is also worth nothing the 2014 coup was not a ‘normal’ coup, in which a country is rocked by post-coup violence. In the lead up to the coup, Thailand was divided, politically weak and ineffective both internationally and domestically, plagued by political violence and economic stagnation and corruption. This is not to say there has been any change in these factors post coup, except for the reduction in street violence, however without sounding in favour of the coup, arguably there were credible justifications for it being carried out. I believe numerous Western diplomats and observers in Thailand quietly understand this, thus plead for their respective states to not treat the coup to seriously or harshly. One former diplomat told me in June, "Although we don't support the coup, in principle, we understand the need for it". 

Western democratic states should send in key diplomatic staff to be based at each individual diplomatic mission, attempt to forge closer ties with government and military officials and work behind the scenes in attempting to facilitate change. Western academics should attempt to forge closer ties with Thai universities and international NGO’s should work closely with Thai NGO’s. Political and civil society protest needs to be well-calculated, strategic and acted upon with an in-depth and holistic understanding.

Sanctions will drive a significant wedge in relations between Thailand and the country handing down the sanction. It will force Thailand to forge closer relations with states such as China, and have a large impact on every day life in Thailand. The economy in Thailand is already going down the sink. It is to simple to argue that sanctions must be put upon a country that has a coup. The state of democracy before the coup, including the state of human rights, political violence, and political conflict all need to be assessed and understood. Sanctions will not solve anything in Thailand, a country so divided and in the twilight period of its powerful monarch, and understanding this demonstrates diplomatic and strategic maturity.           

Yes, the military is protecting its position in Thai society, as it sees itself under threat with an ailing King and immense political division, however, (it is awkward to say this without sounding pro-coup) in an controversial way, it is right. Violence will return to Thailand, and the military will protect its interests, this is inevitable, they have just strategically moved a chess piece a little sooner than expected, in hope they will have the victory. Either way, division and violence has the potential to plague Thailand for years and western governments understand this complexity. Sanctions are not answer. 

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