What Europe Should Know About Thailand


This week Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Prime Minister of Thailand, is traveling to Brussels to attend to the 8th Asia-Europe Meeting, where in addition to discussing equality and economic growth with his regional counterparts, he will have the opportunity to hold bilateral meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Herman Van Rompuy, and Mr. José Manuel Durao Barroso, among other European officials.

From the outside, this visit may appear to be little more than common diplomacy, but for the Abhisit administration, a week in Brussels represents a vitally important opportunity to procure legitimacy from the European Union.

This article was cross-posted on the Thailand blog.

The Thai charm offensive will no doubt be in full force, and thereare few faces more suited for the task than Prime Minister Abhisit,whose Oxford education, kind intelligence, and fluency in the languageof peace and reconciliation will provide many European officials withexactly the words they are looking to hear.

However, I urge those delegates who are present for the smiles andhandshakes with Mr. Abhisit to not take what he says at face value. Fora political leader who has overseen the massacre of close to 90 opposition protestersand the imprisonment of hundreds more, some skepticism is merited. Inthe pursuit of successful bilateral relationship with the people ofThailand, it is incumbent upon EU representatives to ask Abhisit a fewquestions.

One question might be why has Thailand continued to upholda draconian “Emergency Decree” so many months after the protests, whenthe legislative definition of such powers require that they be temporaryand that the very existence of the Thai state be threatened? Last weekAmnesty International released a statement harshly condemning the Abhisit government on these abuses of emergency law, stating: “The government must end its frequent and abusive resort to emergency legislation that contravenes international human rights law.”

Another question might be why has the Thai government not punished,but instead promoted, the military officers alleged to have specificallycarried out the killings? General Prayuth Chan-ocha, one of thearchitects of the military’s bloody crackdown on the protesters and avocal hardliner, has been promotedto head up the military. Lt. General Daphong Rattanasuwan, who isbelieved to have ordered army snipers to rooftops to fire upon thecrowds during the crackdown (including protesters, journalists, andinnocent medics seeking sanctuary at a temple), has been promoted alongwith his wife.

Delegates should ask why has Thailand continued to attack freedom ofexpression and endanger the lives of journalists, even when the contenthas nothing to do with the monarchy? Prime Minister Abhisit is likelyto give an eloquent speech about post-conflict truth and dialogue duringthe ASEM Summit, but someone should question why his government hasclosed more than 100,000 websites and arrested an editor of the newswebsite Prachatai, which the Paris-based NGO Reporters without Borders describes as “unacceptable” and “worthy of a country like Burma.

However the top responsibility for European officials to address inbilateral meetings with Thailand is the status of the investigation intothe death of Italian photojournalist Fabio Polenghi,who was killed on May 19, 2010 while covering the Red Shirt streetprotests after being shot in the stomach. Despite her anguish,Elisabetta Polenghi, sister of Mr. Polenghi, has worked diligently alongwith local embassy officials to press the Thai authorities for moreinformation and results in the investigation, but their response to thiskilling of a EU national has been woefully deficient. Ms. Polenghi deserves the full support of EU officials present during this meeting to answer her questions.

Representatives of the European Commission may be aware that theinvestigations are headed into a dead end and cover up of the April andMay violence. Ambassador David Lipman was quoted by the Bangkok Post, “TheEU would like to see the Kanit-led [Truth for Reconciliation] panel,the Anand-chaired [National Committee for Reform] committee and thePrawase-led [National Assembly for Reform] commission be able to conductunfettered their jobs independently and vigorously.

However Kanit Na Nakorn, who is leading the main panel, has already explicitly stated to the press that his investigation will assign no blame and will not lead to any prosecutions, which is by definition a failure on behalf of Thailand in its duty to investigateunder the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and PoliticalRights (ICCPR). That hasn’t stopped the government from persecuting theopposition with dubious criminal charges – including a trial of 19protest leaders on absurd charges of terrorism, blaming them for thedeaths of their own compatriots. Already in this trial the defendantshave been denied their fundamental right to perform an independentreview of evidence when the court rejected a petition for an independentmedical and forensic examination of victims’ corpses. If thegovernment were so truly interested in discovering the facts, therewould be more, not less, access to information and evidence.

Abhisit and his entourage, who came into power on the back of amilitary coup, have come to Europe to make a calculated gamble: theyknow that EU officials would prefer to avoid problems in therelationship, and that they need to hear certain promises ofreconciliation and eventual elections. We can only hope that EUofficials involved in these meetings are sharp enough to see what liesbehind Thailand’s captivating smiles.

Photo credit: Protestors demonstrate against the presence of Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, attending the EU Asem Summit, in front of the European Council building in Brussels, Monday Oct. 4, 2010. (AP Photo)