Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thailand's new prime minister will use a trip to key Asian neighbours to polish his image and prove he is far more than just a coup leader


Thailand's coup leader-turned-prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is on a mission to secure legitimacy for his junta government as he travels to three Asian neighbours this month.

Troubled by international condemnation over his May 22 coup, analysts say Prayuth is eager to shore up support and attract foreign investment from closer to home as he meets leaders of Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.

Prayuth and his interim junta government, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order, took power after the bloodless coup that they said was to end six months of political deadlock aimed at removing the government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

But the military intervention stirred international condemnation and some Western countries have downgraded diplomatic ties with the junta government.

Since then, Prayuth and his government have taken steps to polish their image. Thai ambassadors and general consuls deployed in 21 countries, for example, have been tasked to explain and defend the coup.

Prayuth may also be asked why Thailand is delaying elections - initially promised for late next year - to 2016.

"They [the military-led government] care about the image, because this would justify the coup," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Bangkok-based independent think tank Siam Intelligence Unit.

This month's trips would provide an opportunity for Prayuth to foster ties with Asian neighbours that are generally less openly critical of the coup than Western democracies, Kan said.

While facing intense criticism from Western heavyweights such as the United States and the European Union in the first few months since the coup, the junta government reached out to its Asian neighbours.

Shortly after the coup, a military delegation visited China for talks on joint and regional training. Many analysts saw this as part of Bangkok's attempt to counter pressure from the West by edging closer to Beijing.

In October, Prayuth made Myanmar the destination for his first official visit.

In a visit to Malaysia today, the former army chief will likely seek to shore up ties with a close neighbour that will hold the chair of the Association of South Asian Nations (Asean) next year, said Paul Chambers, director of research at Chiang Mai University's Institute for Southeast Asian Affairs.

Prayuth is also expected to attend talks abridged by the Malaysian government with Malay-Muslim rebels blamed for the insurgency in southern Thailand.

In South Korea and Japan next week, Prayuth's focus will shift to achieving legitimacy and obtaining both aid and foreign investment, Chambers said.

Prayuth will be in South Korea to attend the Asean-South Korea Commemorative Summit on December 11-12.

A South Korean diplomatic source said President Park Geun-hye was likely to discuss the suspension of a multibillion-dollar flood control project involving South Korean company Korea Water Resources Corp, also known as K-water.

Construction on the project - signed by former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak and Yingluck in 2011 - has been suspended since the military-led government took power.

Meanwhile, Japan has been pushing for high-speed railway projects in Thailand and wants to kickstart the Dawei Special Economic Zone in Myanmar, an industrial zone that will include a deep-sea port, in cooperation with Thailand.

Although the military government has promised to bring democratically elected leadership back next year, doubts and criticisms have lingered over the country's deteriorating political stability and human rights abuses.

In the first few months of the junta's leadership, many Western countries imposed soft sanctions on Thailand over human rights problems.

In an official trip to Europe in October, Prayuth sought to deflate criticism and defend his government to Western leaders.

But analysts have cast doubts over whether this has worked.

"Prayuth desperately seeks such legitimacy, and recent events like the banning of the Hunger Games salute have made the government look sillier and sillier, more draconinan and more out of touch with the 21st-century world," said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia with the Council on Foreign Relations.

But in what could be seen as a diplomatic victory for Prayuth, the US recently agreed to go ahead with next year's Cobra Gold military exercise.

There had been calls for Washington to cancel the exercise - the largest multinational drill in the Asia-Pacific and a key symbol highlighting the significance of bilateral military relations - as a gesture of disapproval in the coup.

Analysts said the Thai government had pressed hard to ensure the exercise would take place - while Washington struggled to commit. But ultimately, geopolitical considerations and the rivalry for diplomatic influence with China might have helped Prayuth and his government.

"Washington has returned to support Bangkok irrespective of the latter's dictatorial regime," Chambers said. "The US is afraid that China might otherwise dominate economic relations with Thailand."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Prayuth's careful mission for legitimacy


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