The Asian Voice

Turning Bangkok into the Geneva of Asia: The Nation Columnist

Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha envisages Bangkok as a hub for international organisations and convention in the years to come.
Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha envisages Bangkok as a hub for international organisations and convention in the years to come. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The capital with the world's longest name (Bangkok's name in Thai is Krung Thep Maha Nakhon) is gradually transforming into the Geneva of Asia. Is it for real?

It is an aspiration of the current military government that the City of Angels will soon become the city of international organisations and conventions, full of civil servants, campaigners and advocators.

It is an irony that this government would have such a noble plan. But, most importantly, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha is dead serious about it. He envisages Bangkok as a hub for international organisations and convention in the years to come. In his view, Bangkok should be able to compete with well-known niche cities of the world such as New York, London, Paris or Tokyo. And Geneva has been chosen.

Given the country's checkered records on democracy, human rights and freedom of expression, this could be an uphill task.

At present, Bangkok hosts nearly 60 international organisations - most of them belongto United Nations-related agencies and regional organisations with privileges and immunities described in the Vienna Convention of 1961. It was granted on a case by a case basis.

Since the coup in 2014, Thailand has suffered from democratic deficits due to the tighter control of civil rights groups and their movement. Freedom of expression, including media, has also been curtailed. At various periods in the country's history, Thailand was considered a haven of international human rights organisations and rights activities. In the 1930's, Thailand even hosted independent fighters from across the region.

But the political uncertainties that engulfed the country as it entered the second millennium led to a knee-jerk political response and mistrust that have essentially tarnished its image and international standing on rights issues.

Lest we forget, Thailand was the first developing country in the region that incorporated the promotion of democracy and human rights as one of its foreign policy tenets. The Chuan government (1997-2001) did exactly that with Dr Surin Pitsuwan as foreign minister. It represented the golden era of the country's democratic development and liberalism both domestically and internationally.

It is not surprising that some of the Thai military leaders are very conscious of their international profiles, as they covet recognition and respect from abroad. Even though they dread the outspokenness of Bangkok-based international organisations, they are still tolerant of foreign criticism. UN agencies, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as other less well-known organisations, have been closely monitoring the situation in Thailand. They are not afraid to speak out.

Franking speaking, it is still a steep learning curve if Bangkok is to become another Geneva. As a host country, Thailand needs to enact new laws that will protect these foreign organisations and their officials according to the Vienna Convention 1961 regarding privileges and immunities. Thailand still does not have a law that would provide such protections, but a draft law on this particular aspect is now being vetted by the State Council .

Recently, Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International Idea) has informed the Thai government that it would like to set up its regional headquarter in Bangkok. For the time being, the Idea's relocation from Canberra has been delayed depending on the Thai government's decision as well the outcome of State Council's deliberation.

At this juncture, the council's members are divided over the draft law. Some of them hold that such privileges and immunities would undermine the country's sovereignty and standing. They fear that some international organisations might not be friendly with Thailand. As a result, they want to maintain the status quo - with a case to case consideration. For the supporters, a more liberal law would attract more international organisations and conventions to set up offices and hold conventions in Bangkok. The country will benefit from their presence, expertise and know-how.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs expects the State Council would be able to approve and overcome their difference soon, so that the draft law would be approved by the National Assembly by mid-year. It is hoped that soon, the country will have its first law providing such a comprehensive protection. Then, the dream of turning Bangkok into a second Genevacould be realised.