As the world watches, Thai PM goes abroad

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha

Now it is time to show the world what kind of person is Prime Minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha. The world's microscope will be zero in on him when he visits Milan for the 10th Asia-Europe Summit on 16-17 October in Italy.

He will meet up with at least 52 world leaders from the two continents, among them were those condemned his power seizure on 22 May. Since then, he often pledged that the military taking over the country's administration was necessary and temporary in nature. He believes fervently it will bring rule of law and happiness to the Thai peoples.

For upcoming trips, he must prepare well and have good answers to three lingering questions in the minds of global leaders. First, it is about the state of freedom of expression in Thailand, which has suffered a serious blow since he took power. Myanmar's media freedom, despite some recent setbacks, is now rated higher than Thai media landscape. Second, the public participation and debate in public policies is lacking throughout, making mockery of the government's promise of shared values and vision. Third, there must be an appropriate time frame for the return of normal political process. Prayuth said the next election would be held next October but as the days go by it has become tentative.

When he is on foreign trips, Prayuth will be alone and most importantly, he will face the global opinion leaders who will not sit idly. Absolutely, he would not be able to stand up for hours to lecture about the do's and don'ts to international audience. In addition, he must give good reasons why the martial law is still in place. The Western concept of martial law usually declared and imposed during war and critical times. Unlike the previous prime minister who spoke broken English, Prayuth decided last week that he will converse only in Thai and use an interpreter from the Foreign Ministry.

On 10-11 November, he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Leaders' Meeting (APECLM) in Beijing with 21 leaders from the region. His performance there will be watched closely by the world over. Since the seating of participants follow aphetically, Prayuth will sit next to US President Barrack Obama, whose government had unkind words against him. Least we forgot, at the APECLM in November 1997 at Vancouver, former prime minister Chuan Leekpai sat next to former US President Bill Clinton and stuck up a solid friendship with shared stories of their childhood growing up in rural area. Four months later in March 1998, Clinton invited Chuan to Washington DC and was given a red-carpet treatment - staying at the Blair House coupling with the US$1.7 billion aid package. Clinton praised Chuan for uplifting Thailand's economy and democracy after the Asian economic crisis.

It was unfortunate that he decided to skip the UN General Assembly later this month and dispatched instead one of his deputies, Gen Tanasak Patimayagorn, who is concurrently the foreign minister. After the September coup in 2006, former prime minister Gen Surayuth Chulanond made his first appearance a year later at the UN General Assembly in 2007. Along with the ASEAN leaders, they came out with a strong statement criticising Myanmar of the suppression of pro-democracy movement. In New York at the sideline of the UN meeting, Tanasak will join other ASEAN foreign ministers for a special meeting next week.

However, the most important meeting would be at the 25th ASEAN Summit in Nay Pyi Taw on 12-13 November. At the moment, he is tentatively scheduled to visit Nay Phi Taw later this month ahead of the summit. Political pundits have said the Thai and Myanmar military leaders were buddies due to their strong ties for decades and could influence the future direction of ASEAN. During his recent visit to Bangkok, Myanmar's Commander-in-Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing praised the Thai military for doing the right thing safeguarding the national interest. It was widely report in the Thai press that Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, who knew Min Aung Laing's late father, was the army chief's adopted godfather.

His interactions with the ASEAN leaders at the summit would be a precursor of his future ties with them. On two occasions - last December and April - the ASEAN leaders expressed concern over the political situation in Thailand fearing that it would impact on the realisation of ASEAN Community at the end of 2015. Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra urged the ASEAN leaders to support her government and condemn the undemocratic forces but they chose to show restraints. In his government's policy statement recently, Prayuth highlighted the country's integration with the ASEAN Community and utilisation of the master plan of connectivity as his top foreign policy priorities.

All said, it is an uphill task for Gen Prayuth, who has spent most of his career in the Thai army's Queen Guard Regiment. Prayuth and his military friends must be realistic when engaging the unfamiliar turf outside. After all, the Western notion of political legitimacy remains sacrosanct that an elected government even at its worst is still better than a non-elected one. His Thai-style strong and know-all leadership must be carefully managed. At the end of the day, he still has to convince the international community to judge his administration on the outcome of extensive reform agenda as well as anti-corruption and anti-despotism campaign.