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27 Jan 07
By hosting ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the Singapore government has violated an unwritten code followed by ASEAN countries not to entertain opposition figures or political dissidents from member states.
A two-week old war of words between Thailand and Singapore over the issue has exposed not only the code but also the claims of the two countries to be acting on democratic principles.
ASEAN also includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the ten-nation bloc, originally backed by the United States as a bulwark against communism.
Thaksin, who was ousted by the military in a Sep 19 coup, is himself guilty of practicing the ASEAN principle of ‘non-interference’. During his term in office, Cambodian opposition politician Sam Rainsy was denied entry into Bangkok to deliver a speech because of his criticism of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But months after Thailand was taken over by tanks and troops, while he was in New York, Thaksin has begun to emerge in a new role as the combative voice of the opposition. The junta’s reactions confirm the level of discomfort he has created in the ruling ranks.
Since Jan. 16, Bangkok’s military-appointed government has demonstrated how far it would go to prevent Thaksin from speaking out and engaging, politically, in any ASEAN country. It accused Singapore of being insensitive to Thailand’s domestic concerns and allowing Thaksin to make political headway.
“We are concerned by the political movements made by Thaksin,” Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told reporters here last week, marking the first hint of friction between the two ASEAN countries. It stemmed from the unofficial meeting Thaskin had with Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, S. Jayakumar, and the interviews he gave to the international media, including CNN, projecting himself as a political victim.
“The Thais felt betrayed because they had made a request earlier about their concerns over Thaksin,” an Asian diplomat told IPS. “On this occasion, Singapore did not fall in line with the usual practice of ASEAN governments supporting each other on such sensitive matters.”
For their part, the Singaporeans faulted Thailand for not respecting its rights “as a sovereign country.” “The Thai government did not notify us that Dr. Thaksin has been charged for any offence. There is also no restriction where he can travel to,” the Singapore foreign ministry said in a statement.
“This clash embodies one of the paradoxes of ASEAN, because their definition of non-interference is elastic and erratic,” Debbie Stothard of the regional rights lobby Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma told IPS. “The governments tend to use it the way it suits them.”
Just how far ASEAN governments have gone to protect each other was evident in November when George Adjitjondro, a respected Indonesian academic who gained fame for exposing corruption during former dictator Suharto’s years in power, was denied entry into Thailand. He was told by Thai immigration officials shortly after landing at the airport that “you are on the black list, so you may never enter Thailand.” The list was drawn up by Jakarta in 1998, towards the end of Suharto’s regime.
Prominent critics of ASEAN governments, opposition figures and human rights activists confronted by this regional mindset aimed at crushing dissent beyond national boundaries include the family members of Anwar Ibrahim, a charismatic Malaysian politician who fell out of favour with the Kuala Lumpur government.
“There was pressure applied by the Malaysian foreign ministry on neighbouring countries not to show support to Anwar after he was detained,” Tian Chua, spokesman for the opposition Justice Party, said during a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur. “It narrowed further the already limited space there is for opposition voices in the region.”
Nobel Peace laureate and a champion of East Timor’s independence struggle, Jose Ramos-Horta, was subject to similar restrictions sought by the Jakarta government under Suharto, who resorted to severe repression to stop the half-island nation from seceding.
Yet, as opposition activists in Singapore confirm, repression helps build the political profile of the victim. Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), benefited from state suppression. “It helped to elevate his personality and his work,” Chee Siok Chin, ranking member of the SDP, told IPS from Singapore.
The city-state never offered Chee the liberties extended to Thaksin. Indeed he has been hounded for challenging the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), jailed and denied the right to speak at election campaigns. “The harder the government comes down on our party, the more oppressive they get, the more we are inspired to push the boundaries,” said Chee.
Singapore’s record of suppression has earned it a place among ASEAN countries intolerant of opposition such as military-ruled Burma and the communist governments of Vietnam and Laos. In September the city state banned activists from neighbouring countries from mounting protests during the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings that it hosted.
“Why would Singapore entertain Thaksin when they would not dream of having Anwar?,” Stothard asks. “It was not done with principle in mind. And it does not mean that Singapore is trying to become more open and democratic.”
But then the Singapore government did have a role in Thaksin’s fall. Its investment arm, Temasek Holdings, paid Thaksin’s family 1.9 billion US dollars to gain controlling interests in Shin, the Thai telecommunications company. Public anger, leading to the coup, grew when it became known that Thaksin and his family members had evaded taxes due against the sale of Shin stocks