Thailand and China. The coming together of authoritarians

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On October 5, Thai authorities detained Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong at the airport and then deported him. Thailand’s premier, General Prayuth Chan-ocha confirmed that Wong’s deportation was at China’s request.

Wong had been invited to Bangkok to speak at events memorialising the victims of a murderous attack on students and their supporters at Thammasat University 40 years ago.

For many commentators, Wong’s deportation is further evidence of Thailand’s turn to China. Since the Thai military grabbed power in May 2014, it has been widely accepted that the country has moved closer to China, forsaking its decades-old position as a staunch political and economic ally of the West.

A meeting of minds

The junta has contributed to this perception. Both the European Unionand the United States have been critical of the coup and of the junta’s awful human rights record. And the junta’s blunt rejection of such criticism has gone hand-in-glove with high-profile visits to China, along with announcements of trade, investment and military deals.

Yet for all of its huff and puff, in practical economic and strategic terms, the junta has done little more than advance relations with China under a momentum established under previous Thai governments. And what Wong’s deportation reveals about Thailand’s relationship with China is a convergence of authoritarian politics.

Undoubtedly, Thailand’s junta considers the deportation of the 19-year-old Wong a “friendly act” that curries favour with China. At the same time, it’s clear that the junta well understands China’s angst about dissidents overseas.

The junta has long expressed a desire to silence Thai dissidents overseasby having them returned to Thailand. It also understands the “need” for promoting political order through the repression of domestic opposition.

Following the coup, the military regime has trumpeted its deals and dealings with China. Yet the outcomes of much heralded deals have been limited.

High-profile infrastructure deals haven’t made much progress. A high-speed railway project between the two countries, that the junta considers central for its economic success, has gone nowhere. Rather, it has resulted in considerable friction with China and much public bickering.

Military exercises, considered indicative of the shift away from the West, have been relatively small and have been matched by usually largerexercises that have included the US.

Dissing the dissidents

The one area where there has been more significant change in the relationship between Thailand’s junta and China has been in the treatment of Chinese dissidents. Since the coup, the junta’s government has been far less accommodating of Chinese political dissidents in Thailand than previous regimes.

Wong’s case fits a pattern of cooperation in dealing with those Beijing considers oppositional.

As an authoritarian regime, Thailand’s junta certainly understands China’s intolerance of political and social opposition. General Prayuth’s regime is the most repressive since the extremist dictatorship ushered in by the violent events Wong was meant to be commemorating in his aborted Thailand visit.

This coming together of authoritarian regimes is evident in a string of actions against Chinese dissidents in Thailand.

In June 2015, after Turkey received 173 Uighurs from Thailand, the Chinese government made its displeasure public. Less than two weeks later, Thailand deported more than 100 Uighurs to China. The junta did not explain why some Uighurs had been selected for the forcible repatriation.

The deportation brought condemnation from various human rights groups, with the UN Refugee Agency declaring it an abuse of international law. General Prayuth acknowledged that this deportation took place because the junta did not want to damage its relationship with China.

In appeasing China, the junta was changing a policy of toleration of Uighurs transiting Thailand, usually resettling in Turkey. Some argued that one response to this change was a bombing in Bangkok in August 2015 that killed 20 people, including five Chinese tourists, and injured dozens. Two ethnic Uighur suspects were arrested and have been held since.

Around the same time, Chinese political and religious dissidents began being removed to China or disappeared from Thailand, turning up in China, held by the authorities. It is not known how many dissidents, including Christians and Falun Gong followers, have sought sanctuary in Thailand.

Likewise, it is unclear how many have been returned to China. Dissidents say it is “dozens”.

A nasty pattern

The first reported case was in late October 2015, when two political dissidents were arrested for alleged visa violations. Both men had already been assessed by the UNHCR and were scheduled for resettlement to a third country. Their fines were mysteriously paid and they were deported to China.

Only a month later, Gui Minhai, a Chinese man with Swedish citizenship involved with Hong Kong’s Sage Communications’ salacious anti-Beijing books, disappeared from his beachside apartment outside Bangkok. He reappeared in custody in China. And there was no record of him leaving Thailand.

In January 2016, another dissident disappeared from Thailand, later turning up in China.

It is not just dissidents who are at risk. In December 2015, Xinhua reported that Chinese police had arrested a company executive allegedly involved in a financial scam. The report stated that Jiangxi police arrested the executive in Thailand.

For dissidents fleeing China, this report is confirmation of their worst fears. Not only is the Thai government cooperating with Chinese authorities in deporting dissidents, but it appears that security assistance includes surveillance of dissidents. It is also possible that Chinese security agents are at work inside Thailand.

While Hong Kong activist Wong wasn’t sent to China, Thai police confirmed that following the request from China, immigration authoritiesblacklisted, held and then expelled him.

The condemnation of Wong’s treatment has been widespread but is unlikely to affect the junta. It is used to denunciations of its many domestic human rights abuses. In fact, Wong’s case demonstrates the authoritarian hue of the regime.

Wong was seen as a threat. As much as sending a fraternal message to China, by treating Wong as a political opponent, the regime is also warning its own citizens.

The Thai regime has a despicable record of repressing its dissidents, as well as censoring, harassing and jailing them. With the junta currently manoeuvring to stay in power for several more years, it clearly didn’t want Wong energising its opponents.

Kevin Hewison, Weldon E. Thornton Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Asian Studies, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.