Thailand protests while Australia watches from the sidelines

Australia needs to take a step back and reflect upon its partnership with the people of Thailand, writes Yawee Butrkrawee.

Following the lifting of the COVID-19 curfew in May 2020, Thai youngsters led a series of nationwide protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a Constitutional amendment, and a reform to the monarchy. From July – December 2020, according to the Human Rights Lawyer Association, there had been 898 political assemblies all over the country.

The Thai government has responded to the protesters’ demands by turning to the law to persecute dissenters and run an authoritarian disinformation campaign. Computer Crime Act and Penal Code’s Article 112 (lèse-majesté) and Article 116 (sedition) were used to criminalise freedom of expression, especially the critical anti-government comments on social media platforms. State of Emergency Decree and COVID-19 temporary laws were also invoked to disrupt and litigate against peaceful demonstrations.

During this time, the military engaged in social media manipulation, trying to attack and discredit the democratic movement and its key leaders with fake accounts and trolls.

As a result, a number of young human rights defenders that reinvigorated political activism in Thailand have been charged and arrested. Some as young as 16 were prosecuted; while others face harassment and hate speech both online and offline.

In response to the increase in online manipulations, in October 2020, Twitter revealed and suspended a network of 926 accounts related to the Royal Thai Army (RTA), which executed information operations. In March 2021, Facebook took similar action by taking down 185 Facebook and Instagram military-run accounts engaged in information operations in Thailand.

Foreign dignitaries have expressed concerns over Thailand’s democratic backsliding, the suppression of fundamental freedoms and the legal persecution of human rights defenders. In Germany and Sweden, members of parliaments questioned their foreign ministers over the situation in Thailand and their countries’ policy response. In Germany, MPs went so far to scrutinise whether politics concerning Thailand had been conducted from the German soil.

Unfortunately, Australia is nowhere near to this issue in its Track II Diplomacy. So far Australia has been eerily silent on what is transpiring in Thailand. Worse, it comes across as being insensitive to the domestic audiences.

On the week of 15 February 2021, Australia’s Embassy in Bangkok invited the King and the Prime Minister to preside over the screening of a documentary about the King’s time in Australia. This was the very same week as a vote of no confidence was taking place in parliament. Protesters took to the streets demanding reforms, but were faced with excessive force from the police, while key activists were put behind bars two weeks beforehand due to lèse-majesté charges.

This diplomatic fiasco revealed a gap in the short and medium term in engaging with actors who operate in civic space (e.g. civil society organisations and people of the host country) when civil and political rights are concerned, because current foreign service actors do not work in this area, nor show willingness to consider the change.

One may argue that Australia does engage in building people-to-people relations. However, this is via a very narrow framework, as it is more often than not based mainly on the pillars of education and tourism. In other words, it is a siloed approach only encouraging Thais to travel and study in Australia universities.

For example, the Australia-Thailand Education Cooperation is currently based on an MOU signed in 2012 which focuses on cooperation between government, educational and training institutions. Australia Awards in Thailand, with the stated aim of ‘building enduring people-to-people links,’ only provides for Thai government officials and not others.

Defence cooperation between the two countries pivots on senior officer visits, exchange postings, exercises and training opportunities, which include master’s level courses and language training provided by Australian universities and defence colleges.

On its social media engagement, apart from reporting Ambassador’s official visits to Thai institutions, most of the messages are curated towards promoting tourism in Australia such as recommendations on popular tourist destinations in Australia, showcasing a local social media influencer and virtual tourism.This is a limited and narrow people-to-people engagement.

Australia needs to take a step back and reflect upon its partnership with the people of Thailand. Its risk aversive behavior of not wanting to engage with civil society actors is consistent with the values of the privileged Thai-Chinese elites with whom Australian elites interact. It is no surprise in the closed circle of the elites, Australia’s Thai interlocutors will praise and encourage it to stick to its current initiatives.

The Thailand example showcases Australia’s country level engagement in Southeast Asia. It is mainly elite based and out of touch with democratic front liners in the country.

Yawee Butrkrawee is the Program Coordinator at the Asia Centre. This piece was first published in the La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 5 - Australia-Southeast Asia Relations: The post COVID-19 regional order.