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Britain should speak up for Thai democracy

Amidst a world in turmoil, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the awful violence in Sudan, the devastation of Yemen and the concerning verbal aggression of China, it is not surprising that the British government seems little focused on events in Thailand, unlike the MEPs who are pushing for reform of the draconian lese-majeste law to be tied to a closer relationship with the EU for the South East Asian nation.

My interest is partly personal, having lived in Bangkok a quarter century ago, and worked as a volunteer in the Government House that has seen so much turmoil. 

Many of the women I worked with there in the National Commission on Women’s Affairs will be about to retire, having seen not the steady progress they hoped for when I left in 1999. Instead there’s been rising turmoil, and the young of the nation increasingly disillusioned, and bravely determined to achieve change.

But this is a key nation in the region, and if the UK wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific region, as the refreshed Integrated Review still maintains, then the UK should be paying attention – and the issues of global importance are many, including less obvious ones such as undersea data flows. 

We have a particular responsibility given the influence the UK used through the second half of the 20th century to strengthen the Thai monarchy, an institution that has not served the nation well in developing a democracy, particularly under the current monarch. Any Thai will tell you how it was the only nation in the region not colonised, but the UK (and France) wielded significant influence in the development of its current form.

In May, Thai voters will go to the ballot box for the second time after the military junta, under the leadership of General Prayut Chan-ocha, staged a coup d'état in 2014. After overthrowing the democratically elected leader Yingluck Shinawatra, Prayut Chan-ocha assumed the role of Prime Minister and has led an authoritarian regime which has restricted political freedoms in Thailand and bolstered the power of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has seized wealth for himself and used it conspicuously for personal consumption.

This time round, another member of the Shinawatra family is seeking to unseat the military establishment. Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of telecommunications tycoon and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, leads the polls and has swayed the hearts and minds of many younger voters.

Popularly known as Ung Ing, she promises to bring back democracy and 'wealth to the country that has disappeared for almost a decade'. She’s a very different character to Khunying Supatra Masdit, who in 1995 as a young journalist I profiled as a potential future prime minister. There’s also the growing force of the Move Forward Party, which is firmly committed to democracy: 'decentralising the country, demonopolizing the country, and demilitarizing the country'.

Whilst this domestic battle for Thailand’s democratic future will shape the lives of ordinary citizens, the spectre of competition between China and the US – and the struggle to defend human rights and the rule of law - will also have impact in these elections.

Thailand’s trajectory is tied to the much broader struggle of a world in which decades of slow progress in establishing international norms and standards is under historic threat.

Going back to the Vietnam War era, Thailand was viewed as a reliable strategic partner in Southeast Asia for the US and UK, whatever was happening domestically. In 2003, President George W Bush designated the country as a 'non-NATO ally'. The annual Cobra-Gold military exercises between the two countries are the longest running in Southeast Asia.

However, relations have been strained since the military coup in 2014. Thailand’s refusal to allow the US access to the Utapao airbase in 2017-18, to support the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, was indictive of the widening gulf.

During this time, China’s grip over the Thai regime has strengthened. China is contracted to supply S2ST Yuan-class submarines to Thailand, although the deal remains troubled and why it needs submarines at all, with shallow territorial waters, has never been satisfactorily explained.

China’s grip over the Thai regime has strengthened. Quote

Beijing has assisted the Thai government in repressing political dissent by exporting its internet censorship methods. Joshua Kurlantzick from the Council on Foreign Relations has said that "China's influence has definitely fed Thailand's already-existing slide toward internet controls" and "has led to a degree of self-censorship in discussions about Beijing and its domestic and foreign policies on many Thai campuses".

Further evidence of China’s revival of influence that dates back centuries in the region came in a joint statement last year, when the Thai government recognised Taiwan as an 'inalienable' part of China and that both countries would build a shared future for enhanced stability, prosperity and sustainability.

China’s influence over Thailand is not merely economic, but Beijing clearly seeks to create a regional order that places Thailand in its firm grip as part of a broader alliance, one tied to the authoritarian repression in Hong Kong and its ambitions to take control of Taiwan.

Next month, the result of the election may determine not only Thailand’s future democracy, but also have impacts on the stability of the wider region. There’s a moral case for offering support for democratic forces in Thailand – to show them that their struggles are being noticed and appreciated – but also a practical one.

Natalie Bennett

Baroness Natalie Bennett is a member of the House of Lords and led the Green Party from 2012-2016.

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