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(November 9,2018) Facing up to Thailand's role as Asean chair - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

As Thailand gears up to chair Asean next year, a sense of deja vu is setting in. The last time Thailand held its rotational turn at Asean's helm from July 2008 to December 2009, it was undermined by domestic street protests that ended up disrupting top-level meetings and abruptly sending Asia-Pacific leaders home prematurely. Owning up to what transpired, it has to be said that the Thai hosting of Asean-centred summits back then was an utter fiasco.

At issue this time is whether Thailand is at risk of more domestic disturbances that could again impede Asean-based regionalism during the Thai chairmanship. The short answer is in the negative because the Thai political landscape now has a different setting. But to minimise downside risks, Thailand should "ring-fence" its Asean chairmanship by creating an autonomous policy and operational space to get the job done to the best of its ability and cultivating a domestic consensus to underpin this arrangement.

To be sure, no one wants to see anything in the vicinity of 2008-09. When Thailand began chairing Asean then, there was much optimism because the late Surin Pitsuwan was also taking up the role of Asean secretary-general. A Thai statesman as Asean's chief diplomat and spokesman while Thailand was the Asean chair seemed like the right recipe for achievement and success. But Thai politics threw a spanner in the works.

Back then, protesters clad in yellow and red alternately took turns in the streets.

First, it was the pro-establishment yellows, organised under the People's Alliance for Democracy. As in 2005-06, when the PAD demonstrated in Bangkok's streets demanding the ouster of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and paving the way for the military coup against him on 19 Sept 2006, the yellows again rallied from mid-2008 against the newly elected government aligned to Thaksin.

As a consequence of domestic political brinkmanship and street violence, the December 2008 summit meetings, featuring the 14th Asean Summit and the 4th East Asia Summit, had to be postponed and split, the former rescheduled to February-March and the latter to April 2009.

In early December 2008, Thailand's judiciary dissolved Thaksin's ruling party and effectively unseated then-prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, who happened to be Thaksin's brother-in-law. As they became disenfranchised, many who had voted for Thaksin's Palang Prachachon (People's Power) party in December 2007 became the red shirts formed under the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, which in turn demonstrated on the streets against the anti-Thaksin and military-backed government of Abhisit Vejjajiva after it came to power by mid-December 2008.

Although the 14th Asean Summit was carried out under tight security, the 4th East Asia Summit became ignominious. The red shirts on 11 April 2009 stormed and occupied the hotel venue in Pattaya City, effectively putting an end to proceedings. Amid the ensuing mayhem, some of the EAS leaders had to scurry onto helicopters to a military base and returned homeward hastily. After repeated rescheduling, the 4th EAS finally took place on 25 Oct 2009. For Thailand's proud diplomatic tradition and organisation, its Asean chairing role in 2008-09 reached an all-time low.

A decade on, Thai politics remain murky. A military junta has been in charge of government for nearly 54 months after seizing power in May 2014. It has been in power longer than the full term of any elected government in the past.

The country's election timetable and transition back to democratic rule have been delayed time and again. The latest government pledge for a Feb 24 poll, which is fast approaching, should be accompanied by the liberalisation and opening of the political space and electoral arena for fair play, policy discussion, and voter mobilisation. Not much of this is happening. Thailand remains polarised and divided about its way ahead, although the military government has put a lid on popular dissent and disenchantment for the time being.

On the face of it, political uncertainty and probable instability leading up to and after the election loom. The junta leader and prime minister, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has been coy and cagey about his political aspirations but it is an open secret that he wants to continue as post-poll prime minister. The 2017 constitution is set to maintain military prerogatives. However, if voters turn against the coup and the military-backed parties in massive numbers, the junta will have a difficult time governing even if it manipulates its continuation in power.

More street protests against disguised military rule through a manipulated poll are thus plausible. But there are two fundamental differences. Any popular show of disapproval is likely to be civil-military in nature, somewhat akin to the May 1992 civilian-led overthrow of a military regime that was elected through manipulation and collusion with conservative politicians. Moreover, the victorious street demonstrations in 2005-06, 2008 and 2013-14 invariably cited the crown as their rallying symbol.

So despite unruly politics and inherent uncertainty, Thailand is unlikely to suffer from paralysing protests as in the recent past. The country should use this opportunity to put a fence around its Asean chairmanship. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be seen as more independent and less subservient to the junta. New and fresh leadership overlooking foreign affairs is imperative. Thailand has plenty of foreign policy professionals but they have had to kowtow to higher authorities that are not always adept and astute.

An Asean agenda that aims high rather than just to get by should be mooted, confronting and addressing existential challenges from geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea and the threat of extremism and terrorism to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Thailand has the most suitable profile and accumulated diplomatic capital to tease out and tackle issues and challenges other Asean chairs may want to avoid or overlook.

No matter what happens with the Thai election and power plays and manoeuvres thereafter, Thai civil society, diplomats and other stakeholders should convince the powers-that-be in government that Thailand can and must do much better than last time as Asean chair.