Thailand failing to live up to its Asean goals: The Nation columnist

View of the Bangkok skyline.
View of the Bangkok skyline.PHOTO: THE PENINSULA BANGKOK

Kavi Chongkittavorn

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK)-Kudos must go to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. He understands very well the importance of Thailand's integration with Asean and its implications for the future and regional leadership, not to mention his own legacy.

However, three years since the power seizure, it is clear that the prime minister has been unable to persuade all the arms of government and networks to come together and execute the necessary steps and measures to make Thailand the centre of the Asean Community.

If this trajectory continues, it would remain an impossible task. As Asean celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the government and officials are proudly hailing their country as the home that gave birth to Asean - like a high school chorus.

Truth be told after years of campaigns that have cost about Bt8 billion (S$327 million) (2013-2015) or roughly Bt2.7 million a day to increase public awareness about the launch of the Asean Comunity in 2015, Thailand's preparedness for Asean integration is still superficial.

A 'D' on the scorecard would still be generous.

Government agencies and their officials are still working in silos without proper coordination. Since he took over the country's helm, Prayut has given top priority to Asean, chairing the country's numerous committees to oversee relevant policies related to Asean.

Prayut enjoyed attending the Asean summits, read all the documents, asked good questions and proposed some good ideas to his Asean colleagues, which included setting up a cybersecurity centre, better border management and jointly working together for sustainable development.

The list goes on.

But then, amazingly, during Cabinet and Asean-related meetings at Government House, he somehow did not push hard and go after all the deficiencies and loopholes that have made his Asean dream a perpetual procrastination. It is a pity that Prayut does not have anyone to monitor and keep track of policy implementation. He only has "Yes" men around him.

We all know Prayut is passionate about making a difference on the issues of human trafficking, slave workers and illegal fishing. He often punished those who failed him, especially when it comes to improving Thailand's rating in the annual Trafficking in Persons report issued by the United States. However, in the case of Asean, most of them got away scot-free.

Equally amazing are the numerous new schemes popping up these days that have diluted his Asean-related plans. Now, the Eastern Economic Corridor and the Thailand 4.0 initiatives have become the new darlings, superseding various special border economic zones and other connectivity initiatives announced as early as last year. Thailand needs to implement existing economic road maps, instead of creating new ones as publicity stunts.

In fact, Thailand must follow through on its Asean action plans related to economic, political and security as well as social and cultural pillars. It is an open secret that there is nothing new in the economic plans proposed by the country's economic team.

Existing plans, if well executed and fully enforced, would automatically transform Thailand into a modern country with seamless access and dynamic economic partnership all around.

Therefore, Thailand should follow the 500 plus action plans in the "Asean Vision 2025: Forging Ahead" because they are practical and deliverable. These plans were well thought out by all Asean members.

What is good for Thailand is also good for the rest of Asean.

Another amazing failure is that all the top economic policymakers seldom paid attention to the Asean vision, otherwise Thailand's integration would have made much more progress. Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia, with less hype and financial backing from their governments, have scored higher in their Asean schemes.

To provide a tangible example of the high tolerance of policy failure and nincompoops in Prayut's Asean, one needs to examine the on-and-off Asean Lanes at Suvarnabhumi Airport. It has become the region's laughing stock. Quite frankly nobody understands what is the purpose of the Asean Lane.

To be more specific, on June 16, at the immigration check-in for arriving passengers, I found the usual three Asean lanes, created in 2012, had disappeared. In its place were two "ACMECs Lanes". The acronym stands for the Ayawaddy-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategies, which is a subregional grouping with Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia as members.

When I asked a senior immigration office at the airport why those lanes were taken out, his quick reply was: "Please ask the phuyai upstairs".

In Thai language, "phuyai" means senior officials, meaning armchair executives of the Airport Authority of Thailand (AOT) and Immigration Bureau.

They continue to hold that the Asean Lanes are primarily for promoting tourism in Asean. So, they are temporary measures.

Literally, no one understands that those lanes are either a common effort to create an Asean identity or are parts of the Asean Charter's must-do list. In the future, all international airports in Asean must have only "Asean Lanes" and "Non-Asean Lanes". Just a few metres away at the baggage conveyors, there are imprints of flags from Asean members - such a meaningless manifestation of the Asean spirit by the AOT.

Somehow, the airport authorities gave more substance and importance to the ACMECs Lanes, even though it was just a bilateral visa-free (a single visa, two destinations) arrangement between Thailand and Cambodia since 2012.

Sadly, only Thailand has set up such an exclusive lane. Other AMECS members are not in the scheme. Again when asked why there were only ACMECS Lanes, the answer from the same official was "phuyai wants".

Thailand will chair Asean in 2019.

The Foreign Ministry's Asean Department has already mapped out a set of comprehensive strategies to boost Thailand and its regional profile. It will be an extremely important opportunity to display our true Asean spirit after the 18-month fiasco from June 2009 to December 2010 due to political upheavals.

Therefore, the only real "phuyai" in town - Prayut - should be mindful of the upcoming agenda and allow Asean professional hands to call the shots. Otherwise, he will leave behind a damning legacy on Asean.