Thailand has its eye on becoming a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the 2017-2018 term. The election of the new set of the non-permanent members will be held on June 28, and Bangkok believes its bid will be successful despite the fact that it continues to be led by generals who overthrew the government in a coup in May 2014.
Already, the Thai permanent representative in New York has expressed his confidence that the political stalemate at home would not negatively affect the country’s campaign for the prestigious UN position. Meanwhile, Virachai Plasai, the Thai ambassador of the permanent mission to the United Nations, recently downplayed the argument that Thailand was heading towards a “failed state.” He confirmed that the bid to serve as a non-permanent member of the UNSC was not a policy of a particular government, but rather a national strategy to place Thailand at the forefront of the international stage. Virachai’s comments suggest that Thailand will look to keep the focus narrowly on its contributions to the UN and international community rather than address the lingering anxieties over its domestic political situation as well.
More specifically, Thailand’s strategy to secure the UNSC seat will be to highlight its commitment to and contributions in preserving world peace and security. Virachai said that if Thailand were to get the seat, it would highlight the role of women in the peace building process as a way to combine the issue of gender and peace building and demonstrate the Thai attachment to the concept of equality at a multilateral forum. Beyond substance, there’s also a symbolic element to all this. Thailand was admitted as a United Nations member on 16 December 1946 and this year will be the 70th anniversary of the country’s membership to the international body.
In reality, Virachai’s suggestion that Thailand’s troubled politics at home would not factor into Thailand’s UNSC ambitions is wishful thinking. If a country’s domestic political situation has an effect on how it is being viewed by the world and how it acts on the global stage, it cannot help but be a factor in considering whether it is fit to undertake a role at the United Nations. And needless to say, that domestic political situation has not been pretty in Thailand since the 2014 coup, with military has continued to rule Thailand, elections repeatedly postponed, and the rights situation deteriorating.
The democratic space in Thailand is disappearing. Thailand’s military, already tainted with the alleged mass killing of Red Shirt protesters on the streets of Bangkok in 2010 – where almost 100 were killed and more than 2,000 were injured – has continued a worrying crackdown on its enemies. Civil liberties have been stripped, critics have been silenced, and the media is under serious state censorship that has put Bangkok on par with other notorious authoritarian regimes. Meanwhile, the ruling junta under General Prayut Chan-o-cha is also in the process of drafting a new constitution which critics perceive as an instrument for the military to maintain its grip on power. With this dismal record, how can the Thai military earn the trust and faith from the international community and serve in a prominent position at the United Nations?
Apart from Thailand’s present record, its past also proves that domestic crises can thwart the country’s diplomatic ambitions at multilateral gatherings. For instance, in 2006 during the critical period leading up to the coup that overthrew the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand hoped to win the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations. Kofi Annan was leaving his post as he was approaching the end of his five-year term, and Thaksin nominated Surakiart Sathirathai, his deputy prime minister and a former foreign minister, to compete in the race. But the attempt was met with a tragic failure.
To be sure, there are a whole host of factors that determine the outcomes of such UN posts – especially considering that this is the organization’s top position. But Thai domestic politics certainly played a role in Surakiart’s failed bid. Surakiart was subject to nasty personal attacks as part of a broader assault against Thaksin, including from the Jayanamas, a well-known family within Thai diplomatic circles. Dirty laundry was aired in public at home, raising eyebrows abroad. And once the military finally staged a coup in September 2006, the Thai dream of winning the Secretary-General position was truly crushed. No nation in the world would welcome a despotic regime to safeguard their peace and security.
A decade later, with a junta ruling the country and showing few signs of relinquishing power and restoring democracy, Thailand’s chances of winning a UNSC seat appear slim. Thailand needs the support of two-thirds of the UN’s 194 voting members, which is no small feat. More importantly, Bangkok needs to win the hearts and minds of the permanent members of the UNSC – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. With Thailand sill subject to Western sanctions since the coup, it is difficult to see countries like the United States giving a fully-throated endorsement of Bangkok’s candidacy. At least for now, it appears that this Thai dream will remain a dream.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.