Thai role key in forging future of Asean

Thai role key in forging future of Asean

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha greets representatives from Asean countries who attended the Asean Youth Forum in Bangkok in October of last year. (File photo by Thanarak Khunton)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha greets representatives from Asean countries who attended the Asean Youth Forum in Bangkok in October of last year. (File photo by Thanarak Khunton)

There has been a lot of hullabaloo about Thailand's role in Asean as the group celebrates its 50th anniversary next week. However, really determining the country's status within Asean will take another eight years when Asean Vision 2025 wraps up and will be evaluated. Here are three determinants:

First and foremost is the country's leadership. In 2025, Thailand's position in Asean will very much depend on the nature of its leadership and governance. Nobody can really tell what kind of government − democratic or otherwise − will be in place in 2025 in Thailand. But there are clear benchmarks within the Asean Community.

The 2025 Asean vision clearly states that all members have to strengthen democracy, good governance and the rule of law, and promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as combat corruption. For Thailand, it should not be difficult to fulfil these objectives if the powers-that-be decide to do so. Since 1932, after the dramatic change from absolute to constitutional monarchy, Thailand has followed the democratic path, even though the outcome has not been satisfactory.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

This is a far cry from the past, when Thailand's leadership in Asean was given a thumbs-up during the Cambodian conflict. Its consistency and diplomatic outreach won kudos from all members, which led to broad support internationally, including at the United Nations. Now the former battlefield of Indochina has been transformed into a regional powerhouse that propels Asean economic development and investment.

Second, to ensure full implementation of all action plans, relevant government organs and agencies must work in harmony to achieve a synergy of policies and practices. So far, they have failed miserably because of deep-rooted structural and personal problems. For instance, to implement certain Asean action plans on security, in particular those related to border management, requires the cooperation of nearly 17 agencies, ranging from the district level to the Prime Minister's Office. Any bottleneck in this long chain of actions can block and delay the implementation of a plan for months or even years.

A different mindset is equally important for officials handling action plans. Frequently they are too focused on protecting specific communities, or groups with vested interests, without considering the broader picture and implications. As the Asean Community moves toward full integration in years to come, it is crucial that the government pays attention to its own harmonisation.

Thailand has done well on two key issues related to human trafficking and migrant workers as well as security cooperation among Asean countries. After three years of trial and error, Thailand has implemented measures contained in the Asean vision and also its own initiatives to improve the rights of migrant workers from neighbouring countries. Obviously, a lot more can be done to fully protect these workers. But Thailand has already taken a giant step to integrate migrant workers into its long-term national development plan. As the country moves toward a digital economy, migrant workers are pivotal to the pursuit of hi-tech modernisation by policymakers.

On the security front, Thailand has been instrumental in establishing the Asean Centre of Military Medicine, which is now in operation. The country learned first-hand from the 2004 tsunami disaster that the armed forces' readiness to respond to natural disasters can prevent deaths and injuries. Within Asean, this cooperation has strengthened civil-military relations. Other endeavours include the establishment of the Asean Narcotics Cooperation Centre and ongoing discussions on setting up an Asean Cyber Security Centre.

For now, Thailand remains one of the most protectionist trading nations among the Asean economies. It is a shame. The government's economic team has not paid sufficient attention to shoring up the Asean Economic Community.

Otherwise, Thailand would have already become the hub of Asean, as envisaged by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha himself when he chaired a national committee to prepare Thailand for the Asean Community in June 2014. Archaic laws continue to block enlargement of the economic and investment partnership. For decades, Thailand has had the largest number of non-tariff measures against imports in Asean. Certainly, some of these measures are necessary but most of them could be scrapped instantly.

Third, Thailand's status in Asean in 2025 will also largely depend on the attitude and overall sense of belonging among people living in metropolitan and provincial towns. They must have a bigger input in the overall scheme of things related to Asean's policies.

In the past five years, successive governments spent several billion baht to increase public awareness and understanding of the implications of Asean integration. It has not been totally a lost cause, even though educating Thais about Asean was done as part of government road shows and publicity stunts. For instance, at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, the Asean lane remains problematic due to its erratic enforcement. This is simply due to the lack of clear understanding among the officials involved of the Asean vision and the purpose of having an Asean lane as stated in the Asean Charter.

Since 2005, Thailand has become the centre of Asean-based non-governmental organisations and grassroots groups. These are important forces for transforming Asean into a people-oriented, people-centred community. To them, initiatives from above or at the grassroots level are complimentary one way or another. What is needed is the habit of holding consultations between the government and these civic groups to fine-tune policies and programmes while they're still in the pipeline.

Today, Thailand is the busiest nation in Asean when it comes to experimenting with political formulae and systems. No matter which direction the country is heading, one thing is clear − Thai policy toward Asean will never change. Since Asean's establishment, Thailand has been right at the centre of all critical transformations in the group's evolution, whether political or economic, and it is safe to say that Thailand will continue to take part in all Asean undertakings without reservation. It will remain so in 2025 whether or not Thailand makes the grade.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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