วันอาทิตย์, เมษายน 03, 2559

How the TPP Helps Dictators Get into Washington's Good Graces

Prayut Chan-o-cha (image by prachatai)

By James Lessons


While he was in the nation's capital for the Nuclear Industry Summit on Wednesday night, Thailand's military strongman Prayut Chan-o-cha said his country was "eventually" going to have to join the corporate-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being pushed by the Obama administration and backed fervently by business lobbyists and corporate interest groups (impact on American workers be damned). Prayut's comments, which were made in a speech before the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that Thailand's industries would need to undergo serious restructuring to meet the TPP's stringent intellectual property and other rules, going so far as to ask the audience to "take care of Thailand" as it overhauls its own economy to meet TPP standards.

Officially, the Thai junta leader's position reflects fears that his country would be left out in the cold as neighbors like Vietnam and Malaysia enjoy the fruits of free trade. The TPP's proponents and the corporations that stand to profit most from the implosion of trade protections have highlighted how these Southeast Asian economies will reap windfalls of jobs and growth. They do so while glossing over the millions of American jobs that have already disappeared as a result of free trade agreements--not to mention the additional perks the TPP will offer corporations for taking jobs overseas. Unofficially, Prayut's nod to one of Obama's signature initiatives is just as much a way of getting back on Washington's good side. This is all the more likely given the (mild) heat Bangkok's ruling general got from the State Department on account of their human rights abuses and manipulated return to "democracy."

Ever since Prayut and his fellow generals staged a coup and overthrew Thailand's elected government in May 2014, what was once a democratic American ally has taken a dramatically authoritarian turn under a leader who can be downright cartoonish in his attacks on opponents and peaceful activists. Since the military takeover, political activity and public gatherings have been banned and hundreds have been arrested. Both Thais and foreigners who criticize the government or its actions have been dragged before the courts on defamation charges, with Thailand's harsh laws against disparaging the monarchy have turned into a favorite weapon of the authorities. Journalists, activists, and private citizens have also been brought up on charges after highlighting the rights abuses of private companies and joking about the King's favorite dog on Facebook.

One of the latest victims of the military's uncompromising persecution of critics (real or imagined) is Theerawan Charoensuk, a woman who faces up to seven years in prison just because she posted a photo of herself holding a red bowl. What makes that red bowl so threatening to Thailand's generals? Innocuous New Year's greetings from former Thai premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, populist leaders who antagonized Bangkok's entrenched elites and lost their positions not through the ballot box but through military takeovers. To the U.S. diplomats and other outside groups who still have the gall to criticize the Thai junta for its crackdown on people like Theerawan, Prayut offers a blunt answer: "Why don't people respect the laws instead of asking for democracy and human rights all the time" No one is allowed to oppose [the NCPO, the official name for the junta]. I dare you to try to oppose [the NCPO].... I don't care what the international community would think about this. I will send officials to explain to foreign embassies. "

While the coup leaders lash out at foreign and domestic critics for any sign of dissent, they have also put together a rigged transitional process to return the country to "democracy", while carving out a deep state for themselves. Just a few days ago, the junta unveiled its newest draft constitution. Naturally, criticism of the document was outlawed before it went public. According to the government's schedule, Thais will have the chance to vote on the draft in an August referendum this year. If they approve of the document, Prayut has promised elections for a civilian government in 2017. Previous constitutional drafts proposed by the military brass have already been rejected because they would have granted the military too much enduring power, but this latest version appears to be no different. The entirety of Thailand's 250-member Senate, for example, would be appointed as opposed to elected. Those senators would be chosen by an "independent" selection panel, although the six highest-ranking members of the armed forces would automatically be included to avoid any" misunderstandings between the soldiers and the politicians that could prompt another armed takeover.

Along with its control of the senatorial selection process, the military's draft also leaves open the door to appointing the prime minister. If it seems as if Thailand's generals want to take power out of the hands of Thai voters that should come as no surprise: the Shinawatra family has won every election since 2001, and a large part of the thinking behind military rule is to make sure their political movement can't pick up where it left off.

After nearly two years of rights abuses and pseudo-democratic charades, the U.S. government finally seems to be speaking up about events in Thailand. Sarah Sewell, who runs democracy and human rights work at the State Department, met with the Thai premier on March 28 and "urged" him to restore democratic governance and respect the freedom of expression. Those statements, though, have yet to be backed up by any real actions. This year's edition of joint military exercises between American and Thai troops, for example, was supposedly scaled back in light of the political situation, but even so, nearly 3,300 U.S. soldiers still took part.

If America is truly serious about Thailand's return to democracy, making vague statements while inviting Prayut to Washington and getting him to sign up for the TPP are not the way to go about it.


Thailand Must Join TPP: Junta Chief

Premier admits Bangkok will eventually have to be part of the pact, even though it may take some time to do so.

By Prashanth Parameswaran
March 31, 2016
The Diplomat

Thailand will eventually have to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, its premier told an audience in Washington, D.C. Wednesday night.

Though Thailand is not one of the four Southeast Asian states currently part of the U.S.-led TPP – whose 12 members comprise around 40 percent of global GDP – Bangkok, along with Manila and Jakarta, have been expressing their desire to be part of the pact further down the line to join fellow ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam (See: “Does Thailand Really Want to Join The TPP?”).

In a speech at an event organized by the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who had assumed his position following a coup in May 2014, reiterated Thailand’s interest in the agreement and said that it would eventually become part of it.

“Regarding the TPP…right now Thailand is considering tak[ing] part in that agreement. Eventually, we will have to join the TPP,” he said in his hour-long address, which was delivered in Thai.

Prayut’s commitment about Thailand’s TPP membership is not new – the former government led by Yingluck Shinawatra which Prayut overthrew had also expressed its unequivocal intention to enter the TPP back in 2012. But it does indicate the gradually warming attitude of Southeast Asia’s second largest economy towards the pact under the present government even though it is still unclear if it can overcome the domestic challenges to actually doing so.

Prayut was candid about this and admitted that the country would likely encounter some difficulties with respect to certain sectors. He appealed to U.S. businesses and other relevant actors to help Thailand overcome these problems, which would be in areas such as pharmaceutical and medical products.

“[There are] problems that occur when we join the TPP,” Prayut said.

“Once we join the TPP, I would like to ask you to take care of Thailand,” he said. “Please support Thailand.”

As I indicated in a previous piece, some experts have stressed that Thailand would still benefit immensely in an overall sense in spite of these sector-specific challenges. One 2012 study by the East-West Center and the Peterson Institute for International Economics estimated that Thailand would have the second-largest percentage gains among potential members with a TPP agreement, with incomes rising by 7.6 percent – second only to Vietnam.

Beyond these statistics, Thai policymakers – including its economic czar Somkid Jatusripitak, a former finance minister – do seem to recognize the cost of Thailand being left out of an agreement that other regional economies either already are or eventually will be part of (See: “Exclusive: Managing the Strained US-Thailand Alliance”).

Prayut also stressed in his remarks that Thailand is currently undertaking key economic reforms – including better protecting intellectual property rights – that would help the country enter into high-standard trade and investment agreements such as the TPP.

Speaking briefly after Prayut, U.S.-ASEAN Business Council president Alexander Feldman urged Thailand to seriously consider joining the agreement.

“[I] can assure you that the U.S. business community supports Thailand entering TPP. And we would be remiss if we didn’t encourage you as the second largest economy of ASEAN to take the opportunity of TPP seriously,” Feldman said.

As I indicated in a previous piece, Prayut is in Washington, D.C. attending this year’s Nuclear Industry Summit (See: “US Urges Thailand to Restore Democracy, Respect Rights“).