Probing Thailand's Crisis

Although the Thai conflict seems to have subsided for now, Thailand has not reached the end of the protracted political trouble. Some of the red-shirted members have returned home in the north and northeast regions, some disappeared in obscurity.

The Abhisit Vejjajiva government is certain that the radicals within the red-shirted movement are still on the loose and that they may strike again. But for now it is time for the government to turn its attention to yet another exigent matter: the issue of human rights violations.

This issue is important not only for the Thais, especially those who lost their loved ones in a series of clashes between the security forces and the red-shirted protesters, but also for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has recently – and belatedly -- begun transforming itself into a more serious, legalized institution. The issue will inevitably challenge the newly-established Asean Inter-governmental Commission for Human Rights, designed to promote and protect human rights by elevating public awareness and education.

When it was founded in October last year, Asean critics immediately slammed the rroghts commission for being ineffective right at the start. This is because the commission has no power to investigate governments or impose sanctions. But Prime Minister Abhisit, on behalf of Thailand, last year's Asean Chair, boldly responded to the critics, "What remains is the onus that lies on Asean to prove that it can implement whatever has been agreed, declared, or envisioned."

It is now appropriate for Abhisit's government to attest that Asean matters to Thailand. The death toll as a result of the violent confrontations stands at 85, while there were more than 1,400 injuries. Most of those who were killed are civilians, mainly the red-shirted street demonstrators. Thailand, as a member of Asean, has the responsibility to protect the credibility and reputation of the grouping, as much as of itself. While Prime Minister Abhisit has promised a thorough investigation of the killings, he may want to "keep Asean in the loop" in order to accomplish the above-mentioned goal.

Why is the phrase "keeping in the loop" used instead of "involved"? This is because Asean's non-interference principle, despite having been watered down over the years, has not been abolished. Human rights are a sensitive issue. And not all members of Asean are willing to discuss it, especially if the human rights situation in their own countries has remained somewhat contentious.

But the recent move made by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who initially proposed a special summit on the Thai crisis, was highly commendable. Although the summit did not take place, it showed that some Asean members are ready to cross into a new threshold where certain sensitive issues should be openly discussed, even when this might not lead to any actions.

Abhisit's Democrat Party has often claimed that it strictly upholds the principle of human rights protection. Accordingly, it has long been known as a fierce critic of Burma's military regime. Surin Pitsuwan, former Foreign Minister from the Democrat Party and now Asean Secretary-General, proposed in 1999 the flexible engagement policy. This policy gave a green light to Asean members to raise their concerns over a given situation in their neighboring countries and the prospect that such situation could create a spillover effect across the border. But it did not really take off.

Looking at this claim, it will only be even-handed if the Democrat government permits its Asean neighbors to voice their concerns over the Thai situation that could generate an impact on regional peace and security. In fact, the government could do more, as suggested by the Thai veteran journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn, particularly in inviting members of the rights commission as "observers" in the fact-finding teams in the investigation of the violent incidents.

The question of to what extent Asean should be "kept in the loop" has not only been actively discussed within Thailand, but also in various regional capitals. Some have without doubt expressed their discomfort in accepting the association's emerging role in post-conflict resolution and human rights protection. They may believe that this could set a new, yet awkward, benchmark for Asean and the way it manages its internal affairs from now on.

In many ways, the Thai crisis is a perfect test for the association to readjust its priorities. Members including Thailand will have to ask themselves if they want to be handcuffed by a single unfortunate situation and let it impede the overall goal of building a regional community. Asean has come far from its humble beginnings in 1967. It now owns a charter and has forged close alliances with its many dialogue partners. The mission towards a true regionalism will not be succeeded if some members continue to perceive Asean from their own narrow perspectives.

Abhisit still has time to make it right. Regardless of the result of the investigation, his government has been blotted in Thai historical textbooks because it ordered military crackdowns that resulted in civilian deaths and injuries. Making the investigation a transparent process, through the participation of local and international civil societies as well as the observation of the commission, the Abhisit government might just be able to rescue some sort of legitimacy while lessening pressure from his opponents. Moreover, it could perhaps help reinvent Asean as a champion of human rights protection. This could assist in strengthening the process of community-building and regionalism.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at the ASEAN Studies Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. This is his personal view.