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September 22, 2017

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Thailand's credibility rests on openness

Thailand's election to the U.N. Human Rights Council last week saved the country from sinking deeper into the abyss. The hard-won seat, which came at the height of street tensions and battles, showed that the country still enjoyed a good reservoir of support among the international community. Scoring the second highest votes of 182 after the Maldives at 185, they did better than the other 12 countries, including Spain, Switzerland and Poland. However, the diplomatic capital, especially on the home front, is getting thinner by the day.

Due to the high expectations of Thailand from its friends and allies towards its fragile but vibrant — some would say bloody — democracy and moral standards of the Abhisit Vejjajiva government, they have often been very critical of the current political violence and unrest. In their view, the government should have done better in enforcing the rule of law when the protest started in March. After all, they did not expect the crisis would last this long and mess up the economy and bilateral relations. These friends, including U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, have already urged the Thai government to end the conflict through peaceful means — dialogue and negotiations — as soon as possible.

Nearer home, ASEAN friends also share similar concerns as they want a tranquil and stable Thailand, which is pivotal to regional stability. It was hard to imagine that the country where ASEAN was founded would become such a big problem in ASEAN as it is today. Vietnam, the ASEAN chair, has tried to forge a common position on the situation but Thailand thought it was unwarranted. In more ways than one, Thailand should be open-minded by allowing ASEAN to express its concerns, when it is done in good faith.

Thailand's continued instability and political tension has already impacted negatively on the overall scheme of things within ASEAN, forcing them to do further soul-searching. Now, the political quagmire in a prominent ASEAN member has concrete spill-over effects on neighbors due to increased connectivity and the impact from further regionalization and globalization. Once the current situation becomes more manageable and stabilizes, Thailand should voluntarily invite ASEAN representatives to visit the country and observe the national reconciliation process as well as monitor the upcoming election. Akin to Indonesia's much-heralded voluntary actions pertaining to East Timor and Aceh in the area of peace-keeping and peace-building, Thailand's initiative has the potential to begin the culture of responsibility to protect and loosen up the non-interference principle, which can serve as part of confidence-building and preventive measures among ASEAN countries in the future.

Internally, the two-month political lockdown of the capital's business centre has also caused confusion and drawn mischievous responses from the Bangkok-based diplomatic communities against the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA). Strange as it may seem, the demonstrations have attracted various reactions, including sympathies from the US, Latin America and Europe. Several diplomats met with the protesters and their backers caused red eyes at the MFA. Obviously, Thailand's widening income gap between the rural and urban areas and hordes of social inequities, highlighted by the protesters, has found empathy among the diplomats here.

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