Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha will pay an official visit to Cambodia today for a two-day trip to strengthen bilateral ties. He is scheduled to meet with his counterpart, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, and to have an audience with King Sihamoni, who, on 14 October, celebrated his 10th anniversary of enthronement. Prayuth’s visit is highly significant in many ways, both for his own domestic purposes and for Thailand’s fragile relations with Cambodia.
Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the ASEM Summit in Milan.
There were signs of rapprochement in relations between Thailand and Cambodia. On May 31, just over a week after the Thai coup, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Tea Banh visited Bangkok and expressed his confidence in the leadership of the Thai military in bringing peace and order to Thailand. In July, Hun Manet, the premier’s son and possible successor of Hun Sen, visited Bangkok to cement ties with Thailand.
The visits to Thailand by top Cambodian delegates were politically meaningful. they could be used to repair the declining popularity of Hun Sen at home by appearing to push for an improvement in bilateral relations. This follows years of conflicts in the territorial dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple and the allegations of Hun Sen supporting former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and offering shelter to anti-coup Red Shirts.
Cambodia is the second ASEAN country selected by Prayuth for his introductory tour as the new prime minister of Thailand. Earlier this month, he visited Myanmar, hoping to exploit the latter’s political transformation to legitimise his own political reforms at home. Little did Prayuth know that Myanmar has recently been criticised by the international community for the stagnation of its political developments. Thus, to a certain extent, the visit to Myanmar was counterproductive for the Thai junta in the eyes of the world.
This time, in Phnom Penh, Prayuth continues to seek an acceptance of his regime by an ASEAN neighbor. In rolling a red carpet to welcome Prayuth, Cambodia is implying that the Thai junta is one it can live with. Officially, Prayuth’s meeting with Hun Sen will render a number of mutual benefits to both countries. The Phnom Penh Post reported that they will conclude memorandums of understanding signed on tourism, human trafficking and a railway connection linking Sa Kaew province in Thailand to Poipet and onto Phnom Penh.
It also reported that a long-awaited agreement on a joint development area in the Gulf of Thailand, which would allow mutual exploration of possible oil and gas deposits, could be in the offing. But the deal remains complicated by decades-old overlapping claims. It is uncertain if Prayuth will raise an issue of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. In the aftermath of the coup, rumours proliferated that Thailand was planning to expel them, causing an exodus of Cambodian workers back to their country across the Thai border.
Indeed, a few bilateral issues have been left untouched, depending on the state of relations between the two countries. Since 2008, the conflict over the Hindu Temple of Preah Vihear had been used as a political weapon to undermine political opponents in Thailand. The politicisation of the Preah Vihear conflict in Thailand had led to several armed clashed with Cambodia. In 2011, Thailand and Cambodia engaged in one of the most brutal clashes in their recent history, posing a threat to regional stability and humiliating ASEAN of which both are members. Prayuth will likely be leaving such contentious issue behind.
But a more important question will be asked: whether Prayuth will seek assistance from Hun Sen in regards to the Thai dissidents living in Cambodia? In the heyday of Thaksin as prime minister from 2001-2006, he personally constructed intimate relations with Hun Sen. When Yingluck became prime minister in 2011, this personal relationship continued to the point that Cambodia was willing to accommodate Red Shirts and their activities inside its own territory.
Undoubtedly, there are a number of Thai refugees seeking shelter inside Cambodia today. So far, Thailand sent some signals from top elites to influence Cambodia not to embrace Thai dissidents with arms wide open. General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, met with Hun Sen on 1 September and urged the Cambodian premier to ensure peace and stability between the two countries.
From the Cambodian perspective, it is obvious that Cambodia is playing with rhetoric of a good neighbourhood. Phnom Penh has never admitted that it provides shelter for Thai fugitives and meanwhile promised that it would not allow that to happen. But the reality is different. It makes sense for Cambodia to implement pragmatic policy toward Thailand: one which cherishes good ties with the Thai junta, and the other which seeks to elevate its leverage by treating Thai dissidents as a bargaining chip.
At the end, Hun Sen has perceived the Shinawatras as his country’s long-term interests. Hun Sen himself has recognized the power of electoral politics simply as a platform to maintain his political legitimacy. Thaksin and Yingluck are using the same strategy, thus having won every election since 2001. From this view, although not a model of democracy himself, Hun Sen understands that popular mandate is key to the success of the Shinawatras. Sooner or later, they will return to Thai political domain.
Thaksin’s tactic is also intriguing. He appears to have kept his distance from Hun Sen, to allow Cambodia to rebuild its ties with the Thai junta to avoid any awkward diplomacy. Prayuth’s coming to Cambodia today may lighten up his military regime, but it is a part of Cambodia’s pragmatic policy. There are no other periods in the Cambodian history which witnesses Cambodia, as a smaller nation than Thailand, actively intervening in Thai politics than today.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.
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The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security has drafted a Gender Equality Bill, to be sent for consideration by the blatantly gender-unequal Cabinet and then for enactment by the similarly gender-biased National Legislative Assembly.
Its proponents are touting its progressive characteristics. For the first time, it mentions a gender other than male and female.
However, it has failed to muster much support among the organizations that deal with gender discrimination on a day-to-day basis. And I fear it amounts to little more than a bit of window-dressing. Whatever authoritarian regime awaits us in the future will just wave it at any accusations that human rights in Thailand are fast becoming a joke.
The Bill allows exceptions, you see. There are, it says, some areas of life where gender discrimination will be legal. This has been a recurrent theme in the struggle between those who support the idea of everyone having an equal chance and those who, being overwhelmingly male, rich and powerful, thinks things are just fine as they are and equality for everyone, all the time, is, well, a bit extreme.
Equality must be limited. To certain occasions. And certain people.
When Thailand first signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it entered a number of ‘reservations’, making something of a mockery of the word ‘All’ in the title. A reservation means that the government can effectively cross out the bits of the Convention that they don’t like.
As far as the Thai government of the day was concerned (and the day was in 1985 when the Prime Minister was a General, fancy that), Thai women didn’t fully deserve the equality that was granted by Article 7 on political and public life, Article 9 on nationality, Article 10 on education, Article 11 on employment, Article 15 on legal contracts and Article 16 on marriage and the family. Makes you wonder why they bothered signing.
But having signed, the sniping started. Successive governments were shamed into progressively abandoning these reservations. The reservations on Articles 11 and 15 were withdrawn in 1991; Article 9 in 1992; Articles 7 and 10 in 1996; and Article 16 just 2 years ago. So as far as the UN is concerned, Thailand is now fully compliant, at least on paper.
But not as far as Thailand is concerned. Despite Section 4 of the current constitution, which says ‘human dignity, rights, freedoms and equality of all Thais … under existing international obligations of Thailand, shall remain protected’, the Gender Equality Bill unconstitutionally ignores Thailand’s obligations under CEDAW and harks back to ‘reservations’.
The Bill says that equality will not apply to education, religion and ‘the public interest’. This will produce sighs of resignation among all those who have fought against the Neanderthals for real equality over the past 30 years, as loins are girded up and battle joined all over again.
Until you see the reported reasons. Then incandescent rage takes over.
Religion was always going to be touchy with the Thai sangkha’s face resolutely set against the ordination of women and similar chauvinism among Muslims and Catholics now given the government seal of approval. And I am not at all sure what iniquities ‘the public interest’ covers, except that it could be everything and the kitchen sink (for the chaining of women to).
But the Bill’s lead drafter, one Kantapong Rangsesawang, Senior Professional Level Legal Officer in the Office of Women’s Affairs and Family Development, claims that discrimination must be allowed to ‘protect Thai culture and conventions’. Especially when these are neo-feudal, misogynistic and inexcusable.
Years ago, there was a stink raised about the Akha practice of twin infanticide with the wrong-headed wromantics arguing that the right to a pure culture trumped the right to life. That lunacy cut absolutely no ice with the Thai state.
But suddenly such ancient Thai traditions as university rules about what you must wear at a graduation ceremony become so sacrosanct that a gaping hole has to be left in the Gender Equity Bill that allows in all manner of discrimination.
We only need those Victorian Aunties in the Ministry of Culture to invent a few more traditions of dutiful female obedience and Thai women can look forward to the rights of being owned, impregnated and worked to death but without the right to say or do anything about it.
But never mind. Thailand is a developing democracy, so say the whizzes in charge who couldn’t beat Qatar of the migrant workers slave trade to get Thailand onto the UN Human Rights Council. All you have to do is make your contrary opinion known by shouting at your MP to get the stupid thing amended in parliament.
Except you won’t have an MP to shout at until after this travesty has become law.
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).