Prayut to extol regime gains at UN

Prayut to extol regime gains at UN

analysis: PM faces criticism over Thailand's human rights record amid escalating crackdown on dissent.

The prime minister says he will be aggressive at the United Nations, stressing the regime's accomplishments against human trafficking and reform. (Bangkok Post photo)
The prime minister says he will be aggressive at the United Nations, stressing the regime's accomplishments against human trafficking and reform. (Bangkok Post photo)

Prime Minister and coup leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha is expected to highlight the progress the government has made in fighting human trafficking during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this week, but how he will handle criticism of the ruling junta's poor human rights record remains to be seen.  

The junta chief is due to leave for New York Wednesday evening, his first visit to the US since the bloodless coup that ousted the elected civilian government led by Yingluck Shinawatra in May last year.

His presence in the American financial capital to attend the UNGA's 70th regular session gives him a chance to share with global leaders the military government's achievements in tackling Thailand's development issues, especially human trafficking, its roadmap to democracy and the latest economic stimulus plan. 

The premier briefly said Tuesday he will inform the international community at the UN that his government has done its best to return the country to democracy.

"I will tell the international community the government is driving the country towards full democracy under the roadmap. We are doing everything we can to reach that goal," he said

Gen Prayut will also use the trip to garner support for Thailand to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

"We have a lot to share with the world about how we have achieved the Millennium Development Goals in the past 15 years," deputy government spokesman Werachon Sukhondapatipak told reporters this week, referring to the thrust of Gen Prayut's speech.

Maj Gen Werachon, an English interpreter for Gen Prayut, said the ruling junta has been "fully committed" to backing the global agenda for sustainable development despite "our rules not originating from an ideology several countries wished to see".

Gen Prayut is not the first Thai junta member to attend the UNGA. Last year, he sent his deputy prime minister and then-foreign minister Gen Tanasak Patimapragorn to tell the world Thailand was making progress in its roadmap to democracy but needed more time for political reforms that would bring about national reconciliation.

As this year's UNGA theme is "The United Nations at 70: The Road Ahead for Peace, Security and Human Rights", the National Council for Peace and Order chief plans to tell world leaders about his commitment and determination to tackle human trafficking -- a scourge that has implicated civil servants and security officers in corruption and has been condemned by the US and the EU.

Gen Prayut will also have to defend the junta's human rights record amid mounting criticism over its escalating crackdown on dissent. Foreign policy experts suggest the junta chief should be frank about conditions under the junta, as well as what it has done and where it wants to go.

"[There is] no need to pretend we are perfect as we live in a borderless world," former foreign minister Kasit Piromya said.

Political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University echoed this sentiment.

"A realistic middle path would be to admit to the shortcomings of ascending to office through a putsch," he said, adding that some of the signature achievements of the coup government included "combatting human trafficking and corruption, while delineating a clear time frame to return power to the Thai people".

Gen Prayut is also expected to meet with African and Latin American counterparts to mobilise votes for Thailand to join the UNSC, as the voting will be held at the UNGA next year. 

Among 10 UNSC non-permanent members, five will be chosen from Africa and the Asia-Pacific, one from Eastern Europe, two from Latin American and Caribbean nations and another two from Western Europe and other countries.

Thailand -- previously a non-permanent UNSC member from 1985-1986 -- officially submitted its candidacy in February 2008 for a two-year term from 2017-2018.

Mr Kasit, a former Thai ambassador to Washington DC, said the bid for the UNSC seat will be a big challenge as the country is under a military regime, has a poor human rights record and is struggling to solve its human trafficking problem.

"If we postpone [the bid] until next term, we may have a better chance," Mr Kasit said.

But Mr Thitinan said Thailand has a number of "friends" to support its bid and its competitor, Kazakhstan, has neither a strong record for democracy nor for governance.

"There is still a chance for Thailand, especially if it can demonstrate an actionable pathway that will lead to a semblance of normalcy under civilian, not military, rule," he said. "Unless they know for certain that it is a temporary and passing situation, UN members will be hard pressed to choose a military government for a UNSC seat."

Yet Venezuela, which has been strongly criticised by Washington over its human rights record, won a UNSC seat last year. Analysts expect lobbying among the 193 UN members to intensify further next year as the race nears an end.

On top of UN affairs, Gen Prayut, like his predecessors who visited the US, will attend a dinner hosted by business lobby groups -- the US-Asean Business Council and the US Chamber of Commerce -- an opportunity for top American corporate executives to rub shoulders with Thai dignitaries.

"It is always a chance for the leaders of Thailand to present their visions for Thailand, especially concerning trade, investment and the economy, and for business leaders to share their views on doing business in Thailand," Council CEO Alexander Feldman told the Bangkok Post.

Gen Prayut is expected to face questions about his stance on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact after his newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said Thailand might be interested in joining the 12-member trade bloc, which represent roughly 40% of the global economy.   

Gen Prayut's political supporters and opponents have threatened to take domestic politics to New York City with both sides vowing to stage rallies despite an appeal from the premier to keep national interests in mind.

"You may hate me or want to harm me, but I am going to the UN on behalf of the country and this country needs to move forward," Gen Prayut said during his weekly TV show last Friday, urging both sides to avoid confrontation.

According to a government source, there is only a slim chance protesters will clash as Gen Prayut will stay at One UN hotel, which will be under tight security for visiting world leaders, including Pope Francis, who is also scheduled to deliver a speech.

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