Aesop told a fable in which a hunter searched for lion tracks. Along the way, he asked for help from a woodcutter, who enthusiastically replied that he could point the hunter to the lion itself. Terrified, the seemingly intrepid hunter turned pale and insisted that finding the lion’s footprints would suffice. As if mimicking the artificially courageous hunter, the European Union (EU) is in danger of also shying away from taking genuine action. As Aesop concludes, “The hero is brave in deeds as well as words.” When it comes to rhetoric, Brussels is demonstrably unafraid to condemn Thailand’s military junta, which continues to strip the country of democracy and personal freedoms. And yet, meaningful steps to tackle the generals are long overdue. EU sanctions are currently in force on more than 30 countries, with such restrictive measures having become a preferred diplomatic weapon for Brussels during the past five years. Thailand inexplicably remains exempt from this list. The time has come for the hunter to tackle the lion.
There can be little dispute over the urgent need for change in Thailand. General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cohorts seized power from democratically elected leader Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. The junta has no democratic mandate and by its own admission will not hold elections until May 2017 at the earliest, if at all. In the meantime, parliament is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the military while freedom has been reduced to a rare commodity. Gatherings of more than five people have been banned, opponents are commonly detained without charge and media which dares criticise the Prayuth regime has been taken off air or removed from print. As such, Thailand emphatically answers the first fundamental question regarding sanctions – Is there a need? The EU’s own guidance describes sanctions as “an essential foreign policy tool” in pursuit of the “principles of the Common Foreign and Security Policy,” a moral code in which the promotion of human rights and democratic values are at its’ core. The very same values which are rapidly being consigned to Thai history.
Meanwhile, recent EU-Thai relations categorically answer the second key question over sanctions – Have all other options been exhausted? To the EU’s credit, Brussels took swift action following the coup, ending official visits and suspending free trade talks. More recently, a European Parliament motion emphatically condemned a litany of abuses under the junta’s oppressive rule. Clearly though, the EU’s diplomatic steps have been ignored. What other option have Bangkok’s generals left other than the imposition of sanctions?
And so we come to the third key criteria when considering sanctions – Would they make a difference? In order to answer this, we must find a suitable precedent. Potential restrictions on Thailand would not be comparable to EU sanctions on Iran, which were imposed to supplement United Nations’ (UN) measures, with international peace under threat. Nor are the current Brussels restrictions on Russia analogous, given the geographical proximity and divisive role which Moscow often plays within the EU. Perhaps the most instructive precedent is Myanmar and not only for its’ location. Brussels acted autonomously, outside of the UN framework, to place targeted restrictions on Myanmar in an effort to boost democracy. In short, a scenario similar to one which might unfold regarding Thailand.
Crucially, the Myanmar restrictions, dating back as far back as 1990, were always carefully targeted. They sought to have maximum impact on the military officials and individuals ruling the country with an iron fist, while minimizing disruption to the everyday lives of ordinary people. Just as importantly, the EU’s sanctions were always flexible, employing a malleable carrot and stick approach which would reward respect for human rights and democracy, allowing for something of a dialogue at a distance. And so when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was once again placed under house arrest in 2000, the EU expanded a visa ban and asset freeze to a blacklist of individuals. Conversely, after she was released from house arrest in 2010, the restrictions were significantly loosened over a two year period. Of course, the net result has been Myanmar’s recent landmark free elections, a vote unthinkable just a few short years ago, as the country moves towards a new democratic era. Nobody would of course suggest that EU sanctions were solely responsible for this. Yet, the restrictions enacted by Brussels unquestionably provided the democratic opposition with an important bargaining chip, while simultaneously weakening the dictatorship.
And if anything, similar targeted EU sanctions on Thailand could prove even more effective. For a start, Myanmar had been under the thumb of a military dictatorship since 1962, an entire generation lost to democracy. The authoritarian rule of Thailand’s generals remains in its’ relative infancy and can still be quickly unravelled. A credible and lively Thai opposition remains, for which sanctions could become a rallying point. Meanwhile, Europe’s influence on Thailand outstrips the sway it has ever held in Myanmar. The continent is Thailand’s second biggest investor and its’ third largest trade partner. In addition, the beleaguered Thai economy remains disproportionately reliant on tourism, its’ international image all-important. Consequently, sanctions of any sort would do considerable reputational damage.
And there exists another, regional imperative too. South East Asia is in flux, democracy cannot be taken for granted. While Indonesia boasts democratic norms, Laos and Vietnam remain under the yoke of communist dictatorship. EU sanctions on Thailand would send a powerful message that retreating from democracy comes at a price. It might just be enough to positively influence the regional balance of freedom. As such, clear, targeted, measurable and flexible EU sanctions against the Prayuth regime can make a very real difference. The case is clear and Brussels has risen to the challenge before. The only thing preventing Aesop’s hunter from confronting the lion was his will. The time has come for Europe’s leaders to find their resolve too.