In a little-noticed Laos moment, McCully signals a major turnaround in NZ policy on Thailand

Following a military coup in 2014, high-level contacts between Wellington and Bangkok went into deep freeze. Why is that now beginning to thaw, asks David Capie

Hot on the heels of the Hague Tribunal’s decision about the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Murray McCully is back in Asia. Meetings with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit foreign ministers this week in Laos will give McCully and his diplomatic team a front row seat to assess the rapidly changing regional security situation.

But as well as providing New Zealand with a chance to listen and share our views on pressing regional issues, the sidelines of these meetings provide important opportunities for one-on-one discussions with regional partners. Among the many “bilaterals” scheduled for Mr McCully in Vientiane was one with special significance. For the first time in more than two years he met his counterpart from Thailand. In doing so, he signalled a major reversal of government policy.

New Zealand suspended high level contacts with Thailand in mid-2014 after the Royal Thai Army overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra and imposed martial law. It was the Thai military’s 12th successful coup since 1932. Army Commander General Prayut Chan-o-cha repealed the 2007 constitution and announced that his National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) would run the country. All political gatherings were banned, opposition figures and academics were locked up, and censorship was introduced. Prayut became prime minister and introduced a ruthless campaign to stamp out criticism, including expansive use of the country’s lèse majesté laws.

BANGKOK, THAILAND - MAY 26: A Thai protester points a finger at the Thai military during an anti-coup protests as General Prayuth receives the Royal Endorsement as the military coup leader May 26, 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand. Thailand has seen many months of political unrest and violence which has claimed at least 28 lives. Thailand is known as a country with a very unstable political record, it is now experiencing it's 12th coup with 7 attempted pervious coups. Thailand's coup leaders have detained former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, along with Cabinet members and other anti-government protest leaders for up to a week. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

A Thai protester confronts the military during anti-coup protests in Bangkok, May 2014. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

At the time, New Zealand described the detention of political leaders as “unacceptable” and called “for an early return to democracy in Thailand, and for full restoration of the rule of law and fundamental human rights – including press freedoms and the freedom of association.” Although no economic sanctions were imposed, since 2014 high level contacts between the two governments have been in deep freeze.

Two and a half years later very little has changed. As Thitinan Pongsudhirak put it recently:

“After two years of hope and anticipation, it is clear now that Thailand is no closer to peace and reconciliation than it was in the run-up to its latest military coup. In addition to the colour-coded divisions among civilians that have beset Thai politics over the past decade, we now suffer from a recurrent chasm between military authorities and civilian forces that was last seen more than two decades ago. As junta rule extends into a third year and possibly beyond, it looks increasingly like a combustible recipe full of tensions and risks”.

Faced with this gloomy situation the government has decided it is time to try something new and re-engage with the Thai government. A first step came recently when New Zealand’s Ambassador in Thailand, Ben King, met with Privy Council Head General Prem Tinsulanonda. A few days ago Mr King met with Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. But Mr McCully’s meeting with his opposite number puts a high-level stamp of approval on the new relationship. There is as yet no public statement on the policy shift, so the precise details remain  unknown, but as I understand it there are no plans to restore prime ministerial contacts. But this is a big step towards a more normal relationship with Thailand’s military government.

What explains the decision? First, it reflects a pragmatic calculation that the current government isn’t going anywhere any time soon. New Zealand might not like the Prayuth regime, but there is a realisation that the military is unlikely to cede power. Indeed, on August 7, Thais will vote on a new constitution that is designed to legitimise the military’s role in politics. The referendum will take place under strict controls. Protesting or campaigning for a “no” vote could land you with ten years in jail. Prayuth has promised elections by mid-2017, but he’s also been vague about what he might do if his constitution does not pass. Some think he might simply impose it.

Second, New Zealand’s approach moves it closer to the stance taken by some of its closest friends, who also took a tough stance when the military first seized power, but who have gradually softened their position. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop travelled to Bangkok in May 2015 to meet junta leaders, including Prayuth, in an effort to “understand more about the progress that is being made and the government thinking around a return to democracy”. Last November, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter met with his Thai counterpart Prawit Wongsuwan on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus in Kuala Lumpur, their first meeting since the coup. Concerned about China’s growing influence, the US has also gradually resumed military-to-military contacts.

New Zealand also has an eye on worrying events just around the corner. Thailand’s revered monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej is 88 and is seriously ill. The king has played a crucial stabilizing role in Thai politics, and many observers fear that his death could usher in a new period of turbulence and conflict. That makes it all the more important to understand what’s going on.

This December marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and Thailand. The Key government’s pragmatic change in policy certainly means there will be a more normal diplomatic relationship in place when the anniversary rolls around. But the ongoing political and human rights situation in the kingdom, and the instability that hangs over Thailand, mean there probably won’t be much to celebrate.

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