Be tough on junta, say Thai exiles

Be tough on junta, say Thai exiles

While Thai political exiles are lobbying foreign governments, urging them not to deal with the military junta in power in Bangkok, Western nations are settling in for the long haul.

In Europe, former professor Jaran Ditta-apichai, one of the leaders of the ousted government's "red shirt" backers, has been meeting European Union diplomats to push for a tough line on the regime.

In South-east Asia, unfazed by the revocation of his passport by the junta, former Cabinet minister and red shirt leader Jakrapob Penkair is still able to travel, meet people and address audiences, he told The Sunday Times over the phone, declining to disclose his location.

The junta's National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) last Wednesday warned military attaches from some 25 countries that giving support to the exiles would be considered interfering in Thailand's internal affairs.

But analysts say the junta has little to fear from the exiles. The United States and EU have already been harsh on Thailand, suspending mutual visits, but neither is likely to go further.

Instead, the international community is edging towards a "pragmatic approach", one Western ambassador said.

Western diplomats are worried about the use of martial law to summon and detain perceived critics, as well as the clampdown on the media. Since the May 22 coup d'etat, more than 300 people have been in military custody for varying lengths of time.

But Western countries, while agreeing that there should be a return to democracy in Thailand, are wondering how far they can go to push the nationalist junta, said one European diplomat.

The junta has been lobbying foreign governments intensively. It has rectified a prickly relationship with neighbouring Cambodia.

Relations with Myanmar's military leadership are warm; last Friday night, the Thai junta's supremo General Prayuth Chan-ocha said the two countries would work together to repatriate some 130,000 refugees, living for years in Thailand, to Myanmar.

Thailand is also playing the China card. Acting Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow returned last Friday from meetings in Beijing to tell reporters in Bangkok that General Prem Tinsulanonda had been invited to visit China. Such an invitation to the president of the King's Privy Council, also a former army chief who is a symbol of the royalist-military elites, is seen as a powerful signal of support from Beijing.

Asked if Bangkok was tilting towards China, Mr Sihasak, a seasoned diplomat, replied: "Thailand is ready to work with any country that wants to cooperate, but a true friend is a friend in tough times."

US Ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney has meanwhile been quietly mending fences after Washington's initial harsh criticism of the May 22 coup d'etat.

Last Thursday, she assured the deputy chief of the junta's NCPO, air force chief Prajin Juntong, that an agreement to service the air force's F16s would be honoured.

The junta's road map to what some analysts say will be a "controlled democracy'' involves an interim Constitution to be released within this month, followed by an appointed government to run the country.

Then, a Reform Council will recommend sweeping reforms, and a new lengthier Constitution will be drafted. Around the end of next year, an election will be held under the new rules.

The road map is one aspect that will be closely monitored by the international community. Naming Gen Prayuth himself as prime minister would raise eyebrows, senior diplomats said. But "we will not drive Thailand into the arms of the Chinese", said the Western ambassador who spoke to The Sunday Times, requesting anonymity.

On the phone from an undisclosed location in Europe, the self-exiled Mr Jaran admitted that the political exiles were at a disadvantage. He said the most that their organisation, the Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy, could do was to ensure that the situation in Thailand was brought up constantly.

"From a political perspective, we must continue to protest against dealing with the junta," he said.

This article was first published on July 13, 2014.
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