Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Thai Political Crisis and the Future of ASEAN

From March to May, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or the red shirts, returned to the streets, gathering for its biggest demonstration and seizing several strategic sections of Bangkok. Then the crackdowns left 91 people dead and more than 1,800 injured.

The political unrest and violence in Bangkok are starkly inimical to the development of Thai democracy and have blemished the country's regional and international reputation.

Then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was urged by the United Nations, European Union, United States, and national and international media to set up an independent committee to investigate recent events.

Thailand's UN envoy Sihasak Phuangketkeow responded to the UN, saying that "the Thai government deeply regrets the loss of lives and injuries that occurred, and is committed to bring those responsible to account". However, at home the government had no words of condolences to share with Thais, but overstepped them to impose its roadmap for national reconciliation.

A few days ago, the Abhisit government finally set up the panel. However, its credibility as an independent body is barely acceptable in the eyes of some Thais, especially among the red shirts.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation's columnist, suggested recently that Abhisit's government should invite the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to join or observe the truth-seeking team, although the AICHR is not equipped with teeth.

Long-term political instability in Thailand could lash regional security in Southeast Asia. Singapore is afraid that the Thai political crisis can hinder economic growth and deter foreign investment in the region, since Asean has set its sights on becoming a regional production network.

The Asean chairman in Hanoi issued a unified statement on the Thai political crisis, expressing concern and support for Thailand.

But can't Asean do more than that?

In 2008, the members ratified the Asean Charter after 40 years of its inception in 1967, pledging to create a regional community by 2015. Under the Charter, the 10 Asean members endorsed the new regional values of democracy and human rights while strongly emphasising its long-standing principle of non-interference.

Political variegation in Asean - ranging from absolute monarchy in Brunei to presidential democracy in Indonesia - allows Asean to accept a vague charter with lots of room for interpretation. The word "democracy" in the Charter is left undefined while the boundaries of the non-interference policy are blurred.

What we are seeing here is a tug of war between the cast-iron principle of the so-called Asean Way - referring to non-interference and consultation - and the new regional values of democracy and human rights. This often leads to the victory of the non-interference policy over the values of human rights and democracy.
Last October the AICHR was established, but due to its mandate to only promote, not protect, human rights, it has no power to investigate any cases of human rights violations.

So, what can we expect from Asean in managing political crises? The candid answer is not much - probably only political statements.

However, Asean finally has its own human rights organ. I agree with Kavi. The AICHR should join the probe team. This is not only a chance for Thailand to regain its regional credibility but also for Asean to prove its significance by providing expertise in conflict management. I guess Asean does not want to be just a paper tiger, but a strong regional community.

Sarinna Areethamsirikul lectures at Naresuan University's Bangkok campus

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