BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Thailand cannot possibly be in the throes of political campaigning when it assumes the Asean chairmanship.
The government is being damagingly tardy in setting an exact date for the general election. All uncertainty must be dispelled.
A series of important events are coming up next year along with crucial issues to be addressed while Thailand takes the helm of the Asean.
But the new Election Commission (EC) at the weekend flattened what little hope there was for a specific date by saying the poll could be held "on February 24 at the earliest and by May 5 at the latest".
There had been relief and excitement over a previous EC announcement that it would be able to stage the election on February 24.
On Sunday Ittiporn Boonprakong, the EC chairman, said the polling could theoretically take place that day, only for a follow-up meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, who oversees the government's legal affairs, to maintain the vagueness - the election might not happen until May.
While the EC is mandated to independently set the election date, the timing of this milestone on the much-vaunted "road map" set out by the National Council for Peace and Order, the ruling junta, is in fact left to the junta.
And the junta gives every impression of dragging its feet on the matter, for reasons including making sure there's enough political support in place for Prayut Chan-o-cha to continue serving as prime minister after the election.
If this is the case, it is harmful to national interests.
Thailand is about to assume the Asean chairmanship and cannot be undergoing election turmoil at the same time.
It will have to host more than 100 meetings at all levels during 2019, including a leaders' summit that traditionally takes place in March or April.
That could be chaotic if Thailand's politicians are in the throes of campaigning for a spring election.
Crucially, once the election decree is issued with a fixed date, Prayut will be in charge of a caretaker government without the authority to endorse agreements with other Asean nations or even make commitments.
It would be in an absurdly impotent position, rendering Thailand's chairmanship meaningless.
Thailand is a founding member of Asean and played a leading role until political conflict beginning with the 2006 coup undermined its status.
When it last held the Asean chairmanship 10 years ago, anti-government protestors succeeded in aborting a major international summit in Pattaya.
A repeat of that humiliation cannot be tolerated.
Thus, the election cannot be delayed beyond February 24.
If it instead coincided with the spring Asean summit, pressure groups could be counted on to try and discredit the military government, and the protest could get ugly if the Army reacted badly.
We could see the situation lurch out of control and end up in another bloody crackdown.
The possibility that people could be hurt or worse, in the midst of an international gathering, would heavily damage the nation's integrity and reputation, already stained by recent history.
To avoid all this, we need an election as early as possible, followed by a swift transfer of power to an elected government prepared to carry out the duties of chairing Asean.
Too much time has already been squandered, but if the junta sets a specific date now, the timing of the Asean meetings could be adjusted as needed, ensuring value and meaning for the Thai chairmanship.
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