Thai PM on first EU visit after easing of sanctions against junta

Delegation aims to seal trade, investment deals during trip to UK and France

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha begins his visit to Britain and France today in an effort to seal trade deals and gain international recognition of his military rule ahead of elections next year.

The former general, who came to power in 2014 after overthrowing Yingluck Shinawatra's elected government in a coup, will lead a Thai delegation of over 100 people, comprising Cabinet ministers and senior businessmen, on the six-day trip.

He is scheduled to meet British Prime Minister Theresa May in London and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

This marks Mr Prayut's first visit to the European Union since seizing power, and comes after the EU in December eased political sanctions on his regime upon his pledge to hold an election, now slated for February next year.

"The council decided to resume political contacts at all levels with Thailand in order to facilitate meaningful dialogue on issues of mutual importance, including on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the road towards democracy," the EU's Foreign Affairs Council said in December.

According to media reports, the premier may encounter anti-junta protests in both Britain and France from rights campaigners, Thais residing in those countries and dissidents forced into exile by what they claim is political repression at home.

The Europe tour is also aimed at promoting international investment in the government's economic plans such as Thailand 4.0 - an initiative to move the country towards innovation - and the Eastern Economic Corridor, which targets high-tech industries.

"Prime Minister May and President Macron should strongly express their deep concerns about the deteriorating state of human rights under military rule in Thailand," said Mr Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch Asia, in a statement on Monday.

"They should make clear to General Prayut that there will be no return to business as usual until Thailand holds free and fair elections, establishes a democratic civilian government, and improves respect for human rights," he said.

The Europe tour is also aimed at promoting international investment in the government's economic plans such as Thailand 4.0 - an initiative to move the country towards innovation - and the Eastern Economic Corridor, which targets high-tech industries.

Mr Prayut will kick off his United Kingdom visit by holding bilateral talks with Mrs May.

He is also scheduled to meet UK business leaders, including Mr Gregory Hodkinson, chairman of building consultant Arup Group, and Mr Mark Tucker, group chairman of HSBC Holdings.

From Saturday, Mr Prayut will be in France, where Thailand's space agency will ink an agreement to buy an observation satellite, reportedly worth US$215 million (S$291 million), from French manufacturer Airbus. He is also scheduled to meet executives from French public transport company Transdev and state railway company SNCF.

Mr Prayut will then meet with Mr Macron in Paris next Monday.

While the visit appears heavily focused on trade and investment, observers say political ties and ensuing foreign investment will not be back in full swing until an election is held.

"The private sector in France and Britain expresses interest in Thailand's projects, but it will only materialise after the country holds an election," said Dr Virot Ali, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2018, with the headline 'Thai PM on first EU visit after easing of sanctions against junta'. Print Edition | Subscribe