Foreign friends need to help reform bid

Foreign friends need to help reform bid

It is never easy to justify a coup. The international standards of governance, with their emphasis on democracy and human rights, that have evolved in the West over centuries are now considered almost a natural, and certainly desired, state of affairs by those countries.

Soldiers sweep near Victory Monument during a clean-up day last week. Life in Bangkok has mostly returned to normal following the May 22 coup, but foreign governments must now help the country move forward rather than offering knee-jerk reactions to the military takeover, says former deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai. APICHART JINAKUL

This attitude has engendered an almost knee-jerk rejection and automatic condemnation of any military involvement in politics regardless of circumstances, and it has tended to act as a bar to any real search for a sympathetic or even fair-minded analysis of the reasons behind such actions.

But for true foreign friends and allies of Thailand, instead of haste knee-jerk reactions, why not try to recognise that this time will allow the country to build a stronger foundation for democratic governance that will make our partnership and alliances more mutually beneficial?

What we had in Thailand before last month was not the kind of governance that Thai people either deserve or expect. At best it could be described as “a dysfunctional democracy”, but probably more accurately as one which ignored some of the essential and very basic principles of any true democracy — respect for the law, equality before the law, good governance, and a system of checks and balances.

We also had a situation where rice farmers were not being paid for their crops as promised by the government. A great many had to enter into debt that they could not afford. Some were driven to suicide in their despair.

We had a situation where anti-government protesters were being attacked almost nightly. Scores of people were being killed and hundreds were being injured.

As anger mounted among the protesters with threats of escalating violence, tension was growing among both the pro- and anti-government protest groups. The caretaker government seemed increasingly and seriously incapable of maintaining law and order. Nor was it able, by law, to engage in any policy decisions or allocate funding for policy implementation. The situation warranted that no election could be held that would be acceptable to all parties in the conflict.

Despite many reconciliation efforts by a great many well-intentioned people, be they businesspeople, scholars, technocrats, and others, politicians refused to compromise or offer a way out. An agreed peaceful breakthrough to this most difficult impasse became desperately and totally unattainable. We faced such a deadlock that a threat of civil war seemed real.

Today, the violence and killings have stopped, the real threat of a bloodbath and subsequent civil war averted. Debts that the government owed to rice farmers have been duly paid within a mere couple of weeks, ending their despair.

This is not a question of condoning the action by the military, but recognising that we have now exited from a dreadful stalemate, which disastrously crippled this country for more than six months, and we have done so without further bloodshed.

Now is the time for looking forward to the future, to avoid the recurrence of past mistakes.

Thailand has been a longstanding partner of all the major powers. We are the oldest treaty ally of the United States in Southeast Asia and an old ally of other Western countries. Thailand was instrumental in establishing Asean and the Asia Cooperation Dialogue of which more than 30 countries in Asia are members. We are an active participant in Apec and the Asia-Europe Meeting. We have played a constructive role in the East Asia Summit where both the US and Australia are members.

We have started our discussions, as invited by the US, on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and we are an active member of the largest-to-be regional free trade area, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership where Asean, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand are members.

We enjoy fruitful partnerships with regional and international friends on a variety of fronts, whether it is political, economic, security or social cooperation extending to disaster relief and the environment. Thailand has paid her dues and played her part in the fostering of international peace, security and progress.

Being the second-largest economy in Asean, Thailand provides a productive and profitable base of operations for a wide range of international manufacturers, investors and service industries. These economic realities make Thailand’s active role in such various intra-regional and inter-regional partnerships bear fruit and mutual benefit for all concerned. It certainly is in the interest of all should they continue to do so.

The temporary administration of the country by the military must not and does not change any of these basic facts nor compromise the prospect of a continuing dynamic future for the Thai economy. Nor should it affect the role Thailand has played for such mutual benefit.

Thailand will continue to seek to play a positive role in the international community, the role that continues to be of great value to our friends and allies. We surely trust that they, too, continue to see the same benefits.

On the domestic front, this is now a unique opportunity through a comprehensive reform process to improve on the many shortcomings and failings of our previous politics.

In short, we have the precious opportunity to make mid-course corrections and push a reset button for an improved common future where all Thai people shall be the beneficiaries. The train of reform should not leave anyone behind.

We shall soon be returning to democracy but with strengthened institutions to safeguard the proper rule of law with enhanced transparency and honesty in public life, genuine public participation and effective checks and balances of the executive branch.

The test of when and how we can achieve the necessary reforms and to have democracy restored, however, is not just the simple matter of setting an election date. An election in any proper democratic process must be one that reassures a better future and forward progress to all the citizens alike.

An election that brings an ongoing impasse, greater divisiveness, corruption and abuse of power should not be an election desired by any democracy as we know it.

The reform agenda must involve better governance through greater transparency, respect for the law, strengthened anti-corruption processes, proper punishment of offenders, reduced powers and a decentralisation of the state bureaucracy, and full participation by all levels of society in the legislative process. Proper and effective checks and balances for the executive branch of our government must be high on the agenda.

This is a process that our longstanding friends and partners around the world, who are genuinely interested in the establishment of a true and functioning democracy in Thailand, should fully support and become part of. Exchange of views and ideas, offering expertise and practical experiences on any of the reform agenda — all with a view as to how a better functioning democracy can be achieved and, as importantly, sustained — are what we look for from our foreign friends.

As democracies around the world go through testing times, we look for partnership from our friends for this unique opportunity to help embed genuine democracy in our country rather than megaphone critiques or the mere demand of an early election date.

What we seek, after so much sacrifice has been made and after so many failed trial and error experiments over so many years, is now to put down firm roots for a fully functioning, sustainable and deliverable democracy for the benefit of all Thai people.

This should be the right way forward, with friends working together side by side as true partners in a unique undertaking to achieve ideals and standards in governance that in hard practical terms will offer better lives and greater hope for all Thai people — and through so doing contribute to greater stability and an enhanced future for our whole region.

Dr Surakiart Sathirathai is former deputy prime minister and former foreign minister of Thailand.

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