Thailand’s stability as a result of military rule may send a bad message to neighboring Asean countries going through democratic transitions, a Cambodian scholar of Thai politics says.
“In case that the Thai military remains in power for the next year or year and a half, and Thailand becomes more stable than in the pre-coup period, this sends a very bad message to its neighbors, especially Burma,” Deth Sok Udom, dean of academic affairs at Zaman University, told the “Asean Corner” call-in show on Thursday. (Listen to full show in Khmer here.)
Thailand’s coups are a bad model because neighbors like Burma, also known as Myanmar, Cambodia, and even communist Laos, can use them to point out the risks of democratization and the benefits of a more authoritarian regime, he said.
Strategically located in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s economy is larger than its four neighbors—Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam—combined. The country is also mainland Southeast Asia’s only founding member of Asean, and it has traditionally played a leadership role in the grouping, including on democratic issues.
But its proactive nature in Asean has diminished since an outbreak of political tensions and the 2006 ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra, who Deth Sok Udom described as the only viable opposition to the Thai military, the country’s most powerful political player. In 2009, a major Asean summit was disrupted by pro-Thaksin protesters.
Meanwhile, with Myanmar and Cambodia are undergoing democratic transition, Thailand’s political system might discourage democratic change, Deth Sok Udom said. He does not foresee any interference into Thai politics from other Asean countries, including Indonesia, the largest Asean country and generally seen as a democratic success story following a strong military regime.
Yenny Wahid, daughter late Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, told VOA Khmer that Indonesia will likely not use its status to directly interfere in Thai affairs but will instead serve as an “inspiration” to other Asean countries. “I don’t think we can really say that the model that Indonesia has will work in other countries,” she added.
Asean has traditionally emphasized economic and security issues over sensitive questions of political interference, she said. “There were attempts by many leaders, including my father when he was the president, to try to ratify that, but it met with resistance from other heads of state within the Asean countries.”
While Indonesia has democratized faster than its Southeast Asia neighbors, its success is limited at a global level, Deth Sok Udom said. He pointed to recent studies that show regional elections, including Indonesia’s, are low by global standards, and not much better than that of Thailand.
Ultimately, he said, the political impact of an important country like Thailand will be an issue to be dealt with for the rest of Asean. “In a unified area, if parts of the area are broken, eventually that will affect the whole area.”