As ASEAN chair, Thailand must support states to address regional rights issues

Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata/CC BY-SA 3.0

As the 2019 chair of ASEAN, Thailand hopes to push an agenda focused on economic cooperation and regional security. But to succeed at either of these, ASEAN must first find a way to address glaring rights abuses in its member states.

By Skylar Lindsay

Following last month’s ASEAN summit in Singapore, Thailand’s leaders are preparing to take their turn as chair of the regional bloc for 2019. As Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha steps into this leadership role, it’s clear that domestic issues in Thailand and across the region will make it difficult for the Thai junta to make progress towards their goals for the chairmanship or those of other ASEAN leaders.

Right now in ASEAN, the human rights abuses either committed or permitted by member state governments obstruct attempts by ASEAN (and Thailand as chair) to implement both international cooperation and domestic policies.

States and leaders that violate human rights and rebuke efforts at transparency become a liability – they are unpredictable and unstable, and their policies actively work against regional connectivity and integration.

Prayut is rallying ASEAN heads of state around an agenda of “advancing partnership for sustainability,” and building regional connectivity. But these issues will be overshadowed by ASEAN states’ domestic failures to uphold basic human rights unless the regional bloc can build mechanisms for accountability and transparency that work.

Rights abuses and domestic crises limit ASEAN’s effectiveness

From the Myanmar government’s inability or unwillingness to protect the rights of the Rohingya to Hun Sen’s insistence on pushing Cambodia towards a repressive society, domestic crises now overshadow any ASEAN cooperation processes.

Thailand itself will also sit under the spotlight in 2019. The King’s impending coronation and a general election are in the pipeline – all of this with the looming backdrop of the civil unrest that plagued Thailand’s last term as ASEAN chair.

When Thailand hosted the East Asia Summit in 2009, supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and other progressive groups protested the meeting. They forced their way into the venue and demanded new elections. Abhisit Vejjajiva, prime minister at the time, cancelled the event.

Now, the Prayut government finds itself in a similar situation. The country is waiting for a general election, with the new tentative date set for early 2019. Prayut will likely focus on domestic security and stability, out of fear of a demonstration similar to the one in 2009, which would threaten the junta’s authority and credibility. This will occupy Thai leaders’ time and energy while also perpetuating a false sense of stability.

The alternative, of course, is that the Prayut government could ask ASEAN allies to support Thailand in holding transparent, accountable elections. If Thailand and ASEAN heads of state want to move forward with regional connectivity, they all need to begin by opening themselves up to help from one another.

This has to start with the monitoring and prevention of human rights abuses, ASEAN needs to build effective tools and agreements around accountability and transparency.

As long as the people of ASEAN states face widespread rights abuses and repression, any top-down regional initiatives will have little popular support – a government that commits human rights abuses loses at least some legitimacy in the eyes of the people. These challenges will continue to occupy much of ASEAN’s agenda, leading to an unstable and unpredictable region. Thailand will be hard pressed to build any sort of connectivity under these conditions – and any measures that are achieved will be far from sustainable.

Some politicians will argue that regional encroachment on domestic issues like human rights threatens member-state sovereignty, but this is a balance ASEAN states must strike to ensure the bloc remains relevant. ASEAN will see its power and significance shrink dramatically if the regional bloc continues to allow its members to violate basic international norms without consequence.

Regional partnerships must start with the needs of the people

World leaders will track ASEAN’s progress on key issues as an indicator of whether Thailand is succeeding as chair of the coalition. Thailand has pledged to focus on sustainable development, digital technology and green economic projects. ASEAN member states are determined to push through a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, and many heads of state will prioritize agreements to secure the South China Sea and deescalate North Korean aggression.

But it will be difficult to advance this agenda unless Thailand also focuses on securing the rights of the people of ASEAN states. Thailand will lead the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR) and has a chance to use this and other mechanisms to build trust and cooperation around addressing rights abuses and protecting the voices of local communities across the region.

The European Union has used economic measures to pressure Myanmar and Cambodia to strengthen protections for civil society and ethnic minorities like the Rohingya. But tactics like this would be more effective if they came from fellow ASEAN states.

Like most heads of state, ASEAN leaders need support to guarantee the rights of the people. Prayut may lead ASEAN towards multilateral programs that are explicitly aimed at sustainable development, and the General has emphasized “people-to-people links.” But these steps will fail if they focus only on elite groups in ASEAN states, ignoring the abuses committed against minorities like the Rohingya, political opposition groups, and the press.

To build connections between diverse communities across ASEAN, member states must be able to guarantee the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike. ASEAN can support them in this by building regional mechanisms for accountability – the best transboundary “partnerships for sustainability” are built when both parties know what’s happening on the other side of the border, and can help one another to address their issues.

As the next ASEAN chair, Thailand has an opportunity to push lasting change by supporting monitoring and transparency. In allowing human rights abuses to continue unaddressed, Thailand would be allowing ASEAN to amble down a road towards irrelevance. Not only does it show the bloc is ill-equipped to handle the humanitarian crises within its borders, but it undermines the region’s stability, hampers economic growth, and chips away at the legitimacy of member-states governments.