Time for EU to up pressure

Time for EU to up pressure

Beyond the political rhetoric of normalising ties, both the Thai government and the European Union (EU) still need to do more to make that process meaningful. Neither party should take the prospect of improved relations too lightly.

The EU's offer of a "gradual political re-engagement", announced on Monday by its Foreign Affairs Council, has sent positive psychological effects through both political and business arenas. After having suspended ties with Thailand following the May 2014 coup, the European bloc has shown its intention to resume political dialogue, while exploring possibilities for trade negotiations.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's promise made in October to hold a general election in November next year and the "phasing out" of prosecuting civilians in military courts are the key developments the bloc cited as reasons for resuming political contact.

But such a resumption of ties is not offered without conditions, as wrongfully perceived by Gen Prayut. It does come with a number of strings attached. In addition to the need for it to keep its election promise, the regime is also expected to lift restrictions on freedom of expression and political activities.

While the EU said it would explore possibilities for resuming talks on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Thailand, it stressed that any resumption of talks along with the signing of a partnership and cooperation agreement may only be pursued with a democratically elected government.

Both Gen Prayut and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai embraced the news with optimism. The premier on Tuesday said that this has been what his government was heading toward in a way which was in the best interests of the country.

In fact, the EU's move is partly seen as an attempt to pressure the military into sticking to the election roadmap while giving it a channel through which it can raise concerns about human rights violations in the country.

So far, Gen Prayut has not tried to fulfill his election pledge. On Tuesday, the premier refused to give a specific date as to when the political ban will be lifted to pave the way for the return of the democratic process.

Meanwhile, the NCPO has not shown a willingness to ease suppression of its critics and activists. The most recent example is the case of former Pheu Thai spokeswoman, Lt Sunisa Lertpakawat, who yesterday reported to police to acknowledge criminal charges filed against her by the NCPO's legal team. She is charged with computer crime and sedition offences for a Facebook post criticising the premier.

Another recent case is a lese majeste charge against historian and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa for questioning the outcome of a battle in 1593 between King Naresuan and the Burmese crown prince, Minchit Sra. A military court has yet to rule whether to prosecute Mr Sulak.

Earlier, anti-coal activists were detained by the military for "attitude adjustment".

Should Gen Prayut want to look at the economic value the country could gain from the normalisation of ties and trade talks with the EU, he should lift the political ban and order his NCPO members and the military to stop prosecuting and harassing their critics and activists.

The European bloc, at the same time, should capitalise on opening a channel to pressure the regime into stopping rights violations and easing restrictions on freedom of expression.

Following the US reversal of its stance towards the Thai government along with China's growing economic dominance in the country, it is understood the EU wants to be more pragmatic in its diplomacy and does not want to lose out in the competition with the United States and China for trade deals.

Some suspect the EU may remain silent during the time leading up to the election in an effort to nurture the normalisation of relations. The EU should prove these people wrong by not turning a blind eye to the regime's suppression of its critics and pressure Gen Prayut to keep his election promise.

Editorial

Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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