Author: Editorial Board, ANU
Thailand is Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy and a human development success story. At the geographic heart of the region, its security interests are myriad, from maritime security to environmental governance and peace along its long land borders. It has been intertwined culturally and economically with China for centuries, yet was a core member of Southeast Asia’s anti-communist bloc during the Cold War and maintains strong defence and diplomatic ties with the United States. Japan has a large economic footprint in the country, including in the form of Southeast Asia’s biggest car industry.
The missing ingredient is a functioning democracy. If it could get its politics right, Thailand would be an example for the rest of the region: as a democratic and tolerant nation, integrated into the global economy, supportive of the multilateral path to free trade and the free trade path to industrialisation. It is also invested in the ASEAN leadership with a solidarity that is the best hope of Southeast Asia’s maintaining its strategic autonomy in the face of an assertive China and an unreliable United States.
After a period of hope that followed political transition to democracy in the 1990s, Thailand’s politics went wrong. The populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra dominated at the ballot box in the 2000s and royalist oligarchs, fearing he would supplant them as the key arbiters of the political order, engineered a coup that received support from middle-class liberals appalled by Thaksin’s strongman tendencies. The military, the monarchy and conservative civil society undermined democratic rule to try ‘de-Thaksinise’ the polity for years.
The relevance of Thaksin and his politics has since abated, but the frustrated popular demands for social and political reform are again rocking the political status quo. In this week’s lead article, Kevin Hewison looks back at how, in 2020, young Thais and their values came to the fore in a mass movement that has ‘challenged Thailand’s 20th century royalism and authoritarianism, targeting former army chief Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government and the military–monarchy political regime’.
During and after the 2019 general election, the reformist billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit emerged as a magnet for the support of younger, educated voters looking for a leader who would fight for real democracy, but who didn’t carry the baggage of the Thaksinist parties. When Thanathorn’s Future Forward Party was banned by a politicised judiciary in 2019, it triggered a student-led protest movement that gained momentum even as Thailand fell into occasional pandemic-related lockdowns throughout 2020.
It’s difficult for conservatives to credibly dismiss the young Thais on the streets as rabble manipulated by a populist demagogue, as was their line through the Thaksin years. The calls for change today are led by Thailand’s future urban professional classes who see militarism and royalism as hopelessly anachronistic.
What is more remarkable is the breadth of the issues that the protest movement — effectively leaderless and rooted in online spaces — is embracing. ‘The barriers to discussing the monarchy in the media are beginning to fall, with royal wealth, power, and republicanism’ now all up for discussion, says Hewison.
The internet has been key to giving this political movement organisational and intellectual sustenance in the face of a backlash from authorities, writes James Ockey in our second article lead this week. ‘The longer unrest continues’, he says, ‘the more government leaders will face increasing pressure to resolve the crisis through either concession or suppression’.
Having tried repression throughout 2020 — to little effect — one would hope the Thai government is forced towards concession in 2021. It can have peace on the streets, and the corresponding economic benefits, if it wants it. But that will mean taking steps towards building the 21st century political system Thailand needs: a proper constitutional monarchy, in which the military stays out of politics, and in which the press, civil society and an independent judiciary — not kings or generals — discipline politicians.
As always, stability and progress will only come with reform. Thailand needs normal politics, not least because Southeast Asia needs a strong Thailand.
Note at the end of the year
Thanks to our readers and contributors for your support throughout this extraordinary year. Our special COVID-19 series has been an important source of inspiration this year. At year’s end we pay special tribute to the late Aileen Baveria, Ezra Vogel, Mekere Morauta, Dick Cooper and Sam Bateman, five giants whose influence for good within our region will last long after the milestone of their passing. All were loyal East Asia Forum supporters.
Consider registering your support for the Forum with a donation here.
May we wish you all a safe and peaceful holiday season and a new year much happier than the year that has just passed.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
Green Party in turmoil, leader resists calls to step down
Canada‘s Green Party was increasingly mired in an internal dispute over its position on Israel on Tuesday, and a news report said the bloc would hold a vote next month on whether to oust its leader, Annamie Paul, who was elected just eight months ago.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) reported that the Greens had triggered a process that could remove Paul, the first black person to head a mainstream Canadian party, beginning with a vote next month.
A Green Party spokesperson declined to comment on the report, but said the party’s “federal council” would meet later on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, Paul, 48, rejected calls from the Quebec wing of the party for her to resign after a member of parliament left the Greens due to the Israel controversy.
“I believe that I have been given a strong mandate. I believe that I have been given the instructions to work on behalf of Canadians for a green recovery,” Paul said at a news conference in Ottawa.
Paul herself is not a member of parliament. The Greens – who champion the environment and the fight against climate change – had only three legislators in the 338-seat House of Commons and one, Jenica Atwin, abandoned the party last week to join the governing Liberals.
Atwin has said that her exit was in large part due to a dispute over the party’s stance on Israel. Atwin on Twitter has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, while a senior adviser to Paul, Noah Zatzman, has posted on Facebook that some unspecified Green members of parliament are anti-Semitic.
The party’s executive committee voted last week not to renew Zatzman’s contract, local media reported. Paul converted to Judaism some two decades ago after she married a Jewish man.
While the Greens are the smallest faction in parliament, they perform well in British Colombia and hold two seats there. The current turmoil may favor their rivals ahead of a national election that senior Liberals say could be just a few months away.
The Greens would win about 6.7% of the vote nationally if a vote were held now, according to an average of recent polls aggregated by the CBC.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Julie Gordon; editing by Jonathan Oatis)
Hope, anger and defiance greet birth of Israel’s new government
Following are reactions to the new government in Israel, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER
“We’ll be back, soon.”
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and all the members of the new Israeli cabinet. I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations.”
NABIL ABU RUDEINEH, SPOKESMAN FOR PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS
“This is an internal Israeli affair. Our position has always been clear, what we want is a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.”
BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER VIA TWITTER
“On behalf of the UK, I offer my congratulations to
@naftalibennett and @yairlapid on forming a new government in Israel. As we emerge from COVID-19, this is an exciting time for the UK and Israel to continue working together to advance peace and prosperity for all.”
TOR WENNESLAND, U.N. MIDDLE EAST PEACE ENVOY VIA TWITTER
“I look forward to working with the Government to advance the ultimate goal of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
CHARLES MICHEL, EUROPEAN COUNCIL PRESIDENT VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to Prime Minister @naftalibennett and to Alternate PM & MFA @yairlapid for the swearing in of the new Israeli government. Looking forward to strengthen the partnership for common prosperity and towards lasting regional peace & stability.”
FAWZI BARHOUM, HAMAS SPOKESMAN
“Regardless of the shape of the government in Israel, it will not alter the way we look at the Zionist entity. It is an occupation and a colonial entity, which we should resist by force to get our rights back.”
BENNY GANTZ, ISRAELI DEFENCE MINISTER
“With all due respect, Israel is not a widower. Israel’s security was never dependent on one man. And it will never be dependent on one man.”
CHUCK SCHUMER, U.S. SENATE MAJORITY LEADER
“So, there’s a new Administration in Israel. And we are hopeful that we can now begin serious negotiations for a two-state solution. I am urging the Biden Administration to do all it can to bring the parties together and help achieve a two-state solution where each side can live side by side in peace.”
JUSTIN TRUDEAU, PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA
“Congratulations on the formation of a new Israeli government, Prime Minister @NaftaliBennett and Alternate Prime Minister @YairLapid. Together, let’s explore ways to further strengthen the relationship between Canada and Israel.”
MANSOUR ABBAS, ARAB MEMBER OF NEW ISRAELI GOVERNMENT
“We are aware that this step has a lot of risks and hardships that we cannot deny, but the opportunity for us is also big: to change the equation and the balance of power in the Knesset and in the upcoming government.”
DAPHNA KILION, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“I think it’s very exciting for Israel to have a new beginning and I’m hopeful that the new government will take them in the right direction.”
EREZ GOLDMAN, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“It’s a sad day today, it’s not a legitimate government. It’s pretty sad that almost 86 (out of 120 seats) in the parliament, the Knesset, belong to the right-wing and they sold their soul and ideology and their beliefs to the extreme left-wing just for one purpose – hatred of Netanyahu and to become a prime minister.”
SEBASTIAN KURZ, CHANCELLOR OF AUSTRIA, VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to PM @naftalibennett and alternate PM @yairlapid for forming a government. I look forward to working with you. Austria is committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and will continue to stand by Israel’s side.”
(Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker)
Boris Johnson hails Biden as ‘a big breath of fresh air’
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday as “a big breath of fresh air”, and praised his determination to work with allies on important global issues ranging from climate change and COVID-19 to security.
Johnson did not draw an explicit parallel between Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump after talks with the Democratic president in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay on the eve of a summit of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies.
But his comments made clear Biden had taken a much more multilateral approach to talks than Trump, whose vision of the world at times shocked, angered and bewildered many of Washington’s European allies.
“It’s a big breath of fresh air,” Johnson said of a meeting that lasted about an hour and 20 minutes.
“It was a long, long, good session. We covered a huge range of subjects,” he said. “It’s new, it’s interesting and we’re working very hard together.”
The two leaders appeared relaxed as they admired the view across the Atlantic alongside their wives, with Jill Biden wearing a jacket embroidered with the word “LOVE”.
“It’s a beautiful beginning,” she said.
Though Johnson said the talks were “great”, Biden brought grave concerns about a row between Britain and the European Union which he said could threaten peace in the British region of Northern Ireland, which following Britain’s departure from the EU is on the United Kingdom’s frontier with the bloc as it borders EU member state Ireland.
The two leaders did not have a joint briefing after the meeting: Johnson spoke to British media while Biden made a speech about a U.S. plan to donate half a billion vaccines to poorer countries.
Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, was keen to prevent difficult negotiations between Brussels and London undermining a 1998 U.S.-brokered peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Britain that Biden had a “rock-solid belief” in the peace deal and that any steps that imperilled the accord would not be welcomed.
Yael Lempert, the top U.S. diplomat in Britain, issued London with a demarche – a formal diplomatic reprimand – for “inflaming” tensions, the Times newspaper reported.
Johnson sought to play down the differences with Washington.
“There’s complete harmony on the need to keep going, find solutions, and make sure we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” said Johnson, one of the leaders of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU.
Asked if Biden had made his alarm about the situation in Northern Ireland very clear, he said: “No he didn’t.
“America, the United States, Washington, the UK, plus the European Union have one thing we absolutely all want to do,” Johnson said. “And that is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That is absolutely common ground.”
The 1998 peace deal largely brought an end to the “Troubles” – three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant “loyalist” paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.
Britain’s exit from the EU has strained the peace in Northern Ireland. The 27-nation bloc wants to protect its markets but a border in the Irish Sea cuts off the British province from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Although Britain formally left the EU in 2020, the two sides are still trading threats over the Brexit deal after London unilaterally delayed the implementation of the Northern Irish clauses of the deal.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said he and Biden agreed that both Britain and the EU “had a responsibility to work together and to find pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade” between Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Padraic Halpin, John Chalmers; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Mark Potter and Timothy Heritage)
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