ASEAN Beat

Thailand’s Golden Opportunity to Lead

Thailand’s chairmanship of ASEAN is an opportunity for the government to counter troubling trends.

By Pechnipa Dominique Lam for
Thailand’s Golden Opportunity to Lead

Thailand Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai speaks during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Today’s international relations environment should bear warnings for Thailand’s policymakers. The rise of fake news in the world’s most established democracies, the U.S. retreat from the established international order, the inexorable rise of China – these are trends which will tend to push international policymaking further from the public eye and more behind closed doors. Thailand, as it undertakes the ASEAN chair under continued military governance, is in a dangerous position to be swept away by these trends.

Perhaps nowhere is this danger greater than in the field of international regulatory cooperation. When executed effectively, regulation improves a country’s economic, social or environmental outcomes. As a developing, open economy, many of Thailand’s regulations are influenced by international cooperation – whether the rules for road safety, laws guiding treatment of animals, or awarding of patent protection for intellectual property.

International regulatory cooperation requires negotiation and diplomacy between those states at the table. Usually, this falls to a handful of negotiators – politicians or civil servants – to make decisions on their country’s behalf. As such, international regulatory cooperation almost always involves power plays between countries that are influential, and countries that the influential want to influence.

Situated in the heart of a fast-growing region, Thailand is a country that many want to influence. As countries jostle for market access in Asia, Thailand is often a key partner in international negotiations: for pushing forward regulatory standards amongst ASEAN countries; or for initiating Asian-level coalitions to use at global forums; or as an investment partner into a less developed ASEAN neighbor. Indeed, last year, the government announced its intention to use Thailand’s chairmanship of ASEAN to court France, Russia, the UK, and the United States, as well as using the existing ASEAN+6 initiative. A shrewd approach, perhaps, in balancing the influence of the major powers.

However, without a clear agenda or commitment to open governance, simply balancing the major powers does not result in effective international regulatory cooperation. It does not ensure that the politicians or civil servants negotiating decisions are doing so on behalf of the country, rather than just themselves. In certain areas, Thailand already stands in murky waters.

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Take for example, Thailand’s role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. As the U.S. Justice Department leads criminal proceedings related to the management of 1MDB, Malaysia’s investment development fund, details are emerging of what is alleged to be the world’s largest-ever financial heist. Many details of the alleged fraud have been laid out by Wall Street Journal reporters, Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, in their book, Billion Dollar Whale, and disclosed on the U.S. Justice Department’s website. As much as $10 billion, intended for Malaysia’s development, was allegedly laundered for the benefit of the scheme’s architect, Jho Low, the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, and their associates. The financial transactions spanned many countries, and regulators across the world have been working with each other to uncover the scheme.

Unfortunately, Thailand seems to have acted on the wrong side of international regulatory cooperation in this case. Jho Low allegedly used Thailand as a base during his scheming, Thai authorities appear to have aided him. Thailand did not act upon an Interpol international arrest warrant issued in 2016 for Jho Low. Notably, China also appears to have defied the warrant.

One case does not prove a trend, and deducing a government’s effectiveness in international regulatory cooperation is a tricky affair. However, the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI), which combine 30 sources to grade a country’s institutions and the excise of authority, provide one proxy. One of the WGIs, “voice and accountability,” measures the extent to which citizens are able to express opinions and shape public policy decisions that affect their lives. Another, “rule of law,” measures the extent to which contracts are enforced. Both are essential to the effective legislation and implementation of international regulatory cooperation. In Thailand, both measures have declined significantly in the last 20 years.

In fact, all of Thailand’s WGI’s have either declined or stagnated since the late 1990s. Certainly, none of them have had any appreciable improvement since the military government came to power in 2014.

Put together – the seeming decline of Thailand’s governance environment, the weakening of the liberal democracies in the international order, and Asia’s rapid economic growth – these trends may be putting pressure on Thailand’s policymakers to sign international deals at the expense of the country’s broader economic, social or environmental goals.

Thailand’s chair of ASEAN is a golden opportunity for the government to counter these trends and to demonstrate to its citizens and the rest of the world that it takes good governance of international regulatory cooperation seriously. There are many actions the government could take to promote accountability and participation during Thailand’s chairmanship of ASEAN. For instance, publish the government’s plans for its chairmanship of ASEAN, engage politicians and civil society on the ASEAN agenda, and issue open, transparent contracts on ASEAN-related expenses.

One does not have to look far to find examples of Thai citizens engaging in international regulatory affairs. The protests against the proposed blasting of the Khon Pi Luang islets under the Lancang-Mekong Commercial Navigation Agreement, or those against the intellectual property provisions in the proposed U.S. free trade agreement, demonstrate that Thai citizens want a voice. It is up to the government to provide an avenue for dialogue to take place.

As Thailand chairs ASEAN, the government and its regulators should heed these trends. The ASEAN region is of strategic economic interest to other countries. Courting the major powers may a smart approach to maximizing negotiating influence. But, the government needs to counter the tendencies of the current international environment and open up policy dialogue on important international regulatory issues. That is a key pillar of good governance and a civilized society. In its absence, Thai citizens may find themselves bound to agreements that reflect only the interests of their unelected leaders and their international friends.  

Pechnipa Dominique Lam is a researcher for the Thailand Development Research Institute, based in Bangkok. Some of the research for this article was originally conducted as part of a project led and due to be published by the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, surveying international regulatory cooperation in ASEAN countries.