Thai Society’s ‘Chasm’ Must Be Bridged, Singapore Says

Thailand’s societal “chasm” needs to be bridged to bring stability to Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy after the military took power, according to Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

“There is deep polarization and Thailand has to find a way of bridging that polarization and find a structure for society that is workable for itself, and only the Thais can do it,” Shanmugam, 55, said yesterday in an interview. “It has had stability for a period and then it’s been impacted and I don’t think it’s good for the Thai economy or the people of Thailand.”

Thai Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha seized power on May 22 in the nation’s 12th coup in eight decades, after months of anti-government protests that saw a court remove then-premier Yingluck Shinawatra on May 7. Prayuth acted after meetings with key figures from both sides of the political divide failed to find a way through the impasse that had left the country with a caretaker government since December.

The coup threatens to widen the split that has emerged in Thailand over the past decade between the largely rural-based supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, and his mainly urban, middle-class opponents. Thaksin was removed in a coup in 2006.

Shanmugam said Singapore was unlikely to withdraw military cooperation with Thailand, after the Pentagon announced it was canceling a readiness and training exercise along with visits by U.S. and Thai commanders to each others’ facilities. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopts a consensus approach to matters affecting its 10 members, and has “not generally taken the path of sanctions,” he said.

‘Internal Processes’

“I don’t think Singapore is looking at sanctions, that’s not our style,” he said in the interview at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about sanctions. The U.S. has its own calculations. We’ve to respect the internal processes of Thailand.”

Shanmugam, a lawyer by training, is also the law minister in Singapore and previously the home affairs minister overseeing the police and internal security.

Thailand’s instability stretches back decades, with more than 20 prime ministers since 1946. No prime minister ever served a full term until Thaksin from 2001 to 2005.

The junta has threatened to shut down media outlets and social media platforms that allow the broadcast or publication of content that might incite unrest, and international news channels remain blocked. Protests against the coup have taken place at Victory Monument in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai in the country’s north.

Economic Uncertainty

The junta takes charge of an economy that shrank 0.6 percent in the first quarter as more than six months of unrest saps consumer spending and industrial production.

“Uncertainty is not good for the Thai economy and by extension it’s not good for the rest of us,” Shanmugam said. “I think the Thai leadership recognizes that.”

Before the coup, anti-government protesters had demanded an unelected council run the country to wipe out the influence of Thaksin and Yingluck, whom they accuse of corruption and using the appeal of economically damaging populist policies to win the last five elections. After Thaksin’s overthrow, it was more than a year before elections were held and civilian rule was restored.

Prayuth, endorsed yesterday by King Bhumibol Adulyadej as leader, said he will enact political reforms, without detailing the changes or providing a timeline for when new elections may be held. Prayuth said he would focus on solving the nation’s problems, starting with making overdue payments to rice farmers under the ousted government’s subsidy program.

Territorial Tensions

As tensions escalate in Thailand, Asean nations also face a more assertive China over the South China Sea, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run and which is criss-crossed by competing claims to territory. China’s placement of an oil rig in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam set off violent anti-China protests in Vietnam and clashes between the nations’ boats.

Vietnam said a Chinese vessel sank one of its fishing boats yesterday, the most serious bilateral standoff since 2007. The Vietnamese craft overturned as it harassed a Chinese fishing boat in the area, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. All 10 crew members were rescued.

Southeast Asian leaders meeting in Myanmar on May 11 issued a statement expressing concern about South China Sea tensions without referencing China directly. The grouping has maintained a policy of neutrality on the disputes.

‘Interests Differ’

The statement reflected what is “doable” for Asean on the tensions, Shanmugam said. “It comprises both claimant states and non-claimant states, the interests differ. And every country in Asean, as I’ve explained before, is likely to also look at it in terms of its bilateral relationship with China, or with the United States or with Japan, or with each other.”

The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the South China Sea. The Philippines in March challenged China’s territorial actions at a United Nations tribunal and Indonesia has sought an explanation of a map outlining China’s claims.

China was the largest trading partner last year of Asean, with Asean importing more from the region’s No. 1 economy than it exported to it.

Acceptable Conduct

Addressing the substantive issue of territorial claims will take a long time, Shanmugam said. “What’s achievable is to try and have a code of conduct that tries to work out how the countries, countries’ ships and so on interact with each other, what can be done, what cannot be done, what kind of conduct is acceptable, what kind of conduct is unacceptable.”

Leaders of Asean have called for progress on a code of conduct with China. Talks have made little headway since China agreed in July to start discussions, with China introducing fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.

Shanmugam said it was difficult to put a timeframe on reaching the code. “There’re a lot of issues yet to be resolved.”

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