Thais take Asean chair, haunted by past summit chaos

Thais take Asean chair, haunted by past summit chaos

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (left) receives the gavel from Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (right) as a transfer of the Asean chairmanship during the closing ceremony of the 33rd Asean Summit and Related meetings in Singapore on Thursday. (EPA-EFE photo)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (left) receives the gavel from Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (right) as a transfer of the Asean chairmanship during the closing ceremony of the 33rd Asean Summit and Related meetings in Singapore on Thursday. (EPA-EFE photo)

Protests, broken windows and dignitaries forced to flee by helicopter -- Thailand's last stint as host of Southeast Asia's biggest summit was devoured by political chaos.

But as the chairmanship of Asean passed on Thursday from Singapore to Thailand, Bangkok is hoping unrest will not spoil its year in the spotlight.

The annual Asean summit has become a major stop on the diplomatic circuit, even drawing leaders from the US, China, Japan and Russia.

According to Asean Charter, the chairmanship rotates annually, based on the alphabetical order of the English names of member countries.

Thailand's chairmanship means Asean will be hosted by a military dictatorship the same year it plans to hold elections.

The kingdom is notorious for its fractious, disruptive and sometimes violent street politics.

Thailand's generals will be desperate to avoid a repeat of 2009 when protesters from the pro-democracy "red shirt" faction smashed their way into the summit venue in the resort city of Pattaya demanding elections.

Pandemonium ensued, with a number of leaders having to be rescued from a hotel roof by Thai army helicopters while others fled by boat.

"It was chaotic," one Southeast Asian diplomat who attended that cancelled summit told AFP.

Back then Thailand was riven by political tensions that pitted the "red shirts" -- loyal to ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- against their "yellow shirt" rivals, allies of the royalist and military elite in Bangkok.

In 2014, an ultraroyalist military clique again seized power, ushering in the most autocratic government Thailand has seen for a generation.

Busadee Santipitaks, a spokeswoman at Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the country was ready to host world leaders regardless of the elections.

"We expect to host more than 170 meetings at various levels next year in Thailand," she told AFP, adding "tentative dates" for the key summits were under discussion.

A second Southeast Asian diplomat said the Thai government is unlikely to let a repeat of the 2009 debacle occur.

"I don't think they will allow another such incident to mar their chairmanship," the diplomat told AFP.

Historically Asean tries to avoid hosting summits in countries the same year they hold elections.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a veteran politics commentator, said the 2009 debacle was a "fiasco, the lowest point in respected and recognised Thai diplomatic annals".

He said while political unrest could never be ruled out in Thailand, the junta could make their Asean hosting duties easier if they deliver a clean and timely election.

"The junta has to ensure that the overall electorate is satisfied with the electoral process and timing," he told AFP.

"If the junta manipulates at all costs to stay in power after the poll, it could elicit a popular backlash."


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