Thailand: Progressive leader may not become PM – Asian Media Report

Jul 15, 2023
Pita Limjaroenrat, House of Representative member in Thailand Parliament, Move Forward Party.

In Asian media this week: Junta’s system thwarts Thai election victor. Plus: Modi ignores brutal war in Indian State; North Korea to treat South as a foreign country; Japan embraces NATO but China hits back; China’s unstated economic strategy – muddling through; Indonesia’s EV plans for Australia.

Thailand’s progressive Move Forward Party won the national elections in May but its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, was defeated in Thursday’s parliamentary vote for the prime ministership. He has vowed to fight on – even though, under rules imposed by Thailand’s post-coup constitution, he was beaten soundly.

Bangkok Post reported Pita as saying “I’m not giving up” but it noted he fell 51 votes short of the 375 he needed in a joint sitting of parliament – 500 elected Lower House MPs and 249 senators appointed by the military junta that ruled after the coup in 2014.

Pita said he would strategise again to get the extra votes. But the party would not change its policies, especially its plan to soften Section 112 of the criminal code – the lese majeste law.

The Thai Enquirer news site said this reform was central to the six-hour debate that preceded the parliamentary vote. MPs from parties outside of Move Forward’s coalition said it was the key reason for not supporting his candidacy.

It said convincing more than 50 senators to support Pita in next week’s second vote might well be impossible.

“What seems most likely at this point… is that Pita Limjaroenrat will not be Thailand’s 30th prime minister,” it said.

An unmistakable sign the royalist-military elite was determined to thwart Pita came on Wednesday when the Election Commission started the process of disqualifying Pita as an MP, referring his alleged ownership of media company shares to the Constitutional Court. Media company shareholders are banned from standing for parliament.

Bangkok Post said in an editorial: “This latest development shows attempts by the conservative side to maintain power, despite its massive election loss. In doing so, they simply fail to respect voters’ wishes.”

The Khaosod English news site ran an opinion piece headed: “Lawfare has begun; Pita’s fate repeats Thailand’s political turmoil.”

And in a sign of protests to come should Pita not be elected prime minister, Thammasat University students, traditionally among the most radical, condemned the parliamentary vote. Bangkok Post said they described MPs and senators who voted against the will of the people as disgraceful.

Small story points to ‘civil war’ conflict

A policeman was killed and 10 people injured during the week in clashes in Manipur State, in north-east India. The Hindu newspaper reported on the violence and gave it only five paragraphs. But the fourth paragraph pointed to a much more significant story.

It said: “At least 150 people have been killed and several hundred injured since ethnic violence broke out in the state on May 3, when a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ was organised in the hill districts to protest against the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.”

The conflict is between Kuki tribal groups, who live in hilly areas of the state, and Meiteis, who live in valley districts. The Hindu, through its Frontline magazine, recently published extensive reporting on the violence.

Behind the ethnic fault lines is the issue of land rights in the hills and the valley. And behind the land issue is poppy cultivation, a war on drugs and the eviction of people from protected forest areas.

The centerpiece of the reporting is a detailed feature article headed: ‘Mayhem in Manipur: The State burns while the Centre looks away.’

The story says more than 50,000 people have been displaced, scores injured and more than 100 killed (at the time of writing). The weapons used have been stolen from government armouries. More than 40,000 security personnel have been deployed.

An editor’s note says Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a conspicuous and studied silence on the conflict.

“It would seem practically impossible for an armed conflagration to break out and escalate to a situation almost amounting to civil war within weeks – without the knowledge of either the State or the Centre,” the note says.

“Yet, it has.”

In Korea, the south now a foreign country

North Korea normally refers to its South Korea as “south Korea” or “the south Korean puppet”. But this week Pyongyang referred to Seoul as the “Republic of Korea” – South Korea’s official name. Local media see the change as significant.

Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, used the official name in two statements she issued in both Korean and English. Her statements concerned accusations that a US spy plane had intruded into North Korean airspace.

A report in The Korea Herald said it signalled a change in Pyongyang’s decades-long strategy of unifying the Korean Peninsula under North Korea’s lead.

The change might show Pyongyang had begun to recognise Seoul as a separate state – in a hostile manner, the paper said.

The Korea Times quoted Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, as saying Pyongyang might be preparing to change its stance and policies toward South Korea.

“It aligns with some previous moves showing the North’s intent to treat South Korea as a foreign country,” he said.

Something’s happened to NATO’s Tokyo office

Japan is embracing NATO enthusiastically, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida saying the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific are inseparable.

The Japan Times reported Japan and NATO had ushered in a new era in their relationship, with Japan joining the alliance’s Individually Tailored Partnership Program.

Japan, along with South Korea, New Zealand and Australia attended the NATO leaders’ summit in Vilnius, Lithuania during the week. The Japan Times said the countries were known informally as the Indo-Pacific Four. They were moving to the internationally tailored program to expand and institutionalise co-operation with the alliance.

Kishida made his remarks about the links between his country and the organisation alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. But neither man mentioned plans to open a NATO liaison office in Tokyo.

“Paris has reportedly rejected the move as ‘a matter of principle,’ arguing that such geographical expansion would risk shifting the alliance’s remit too far from its original North Atlantic focus,” the paper said.

The proposal was also criticised by former Prime Minister Paul Keating, leading to a clash with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

And NATO’s planned expansion into the Indo-Pacific has been denounced by China. Global Times, an official English-language paper, said in an editorial NATO had once been almost brain-dead but the Russia-Ukraine war had given it a chance to extend its existence. NATO was becoming ambitious, aggressive and arrogant, it said.

“NATO must restrain rather than indulge its own impulse to expand,” the editorial said. “NATO must respect the legitimate security concerns and (interests) of major countries in the region. NATO must promptly withdraw the black hand it has extended toward the Asia-Pacific region.”

China 2.0 a competitive economy

One of China’s top economists has put a name to what might well be China’s unstated strategy for recovery: muddling through.

Andy Xie, an independent economist who previously held senior positions with the World Bank, Macquarie Bank and Morgan Stanley, says China’s post-COVID recovery has been disappointing.

China is dealing with a property bubble and other types of over-capacity, especially in the car industry, Xie says in an article in the South China Morning Post. It needs time and structural reform to regain healthy growth.

The economy, he says, is still gaining in competitiveness and so has time to fix its problems.

“China remains competitive,” he says. “A big part of its manufacturing has upgraded to 5G and artificial intelligence-assisted systems. Its electric vehicle (EV) industry is rising rapidly. Its solar power is becoming cheaper than fossil fuel. And its nuclear power industry is about to take off.

“Unlike China 1.0, which made products cheaply for global companies to sell for high profit, China 2.0 has cutting-edge technologies and markets its own brands…

“China faces many economic challenges. Its best option is to restructure and rebalance the economy, though it won’t do so. Muddling through is still a viable option…”

Australia has key role in Indonesia’s EV hub plans

Indonesia hopes to double imports of lithium from Australia in a deal that would give Australia a big stake in its plans to build an electric-vehicle battery industry.

The imports were discussed during Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s visit to Australia last week. A report in The Jakarta Post gave a little more information about Indonesia’s ambition to get an extra 60,000 tonnes of lithium from Australia.

Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, Luhut Pandjaitan, said the two countries had previously discussed the annual import of 60,000 tonnes of lithium, to be processed at the Morowali industrial park in Sulawesi.

Last week, he had asked for an extra 60,000 tonnes and had suggested an Australian equity investment that would mean the lithium smelter project would be owned jointly by Indonesia and Australia.

“They responded positively to the idea,” he said.

Indonesia hopes to become an international battery production hub. It has the world’s largest reserves of nickel, a mineral essential for EV batteries but lacks its own supplies of lithium, another necessary mineral.

Just over half the world’s lithium comes from Australia, with 25 per cent from Chile and 13 per cent from China.

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