Violent protests cast a shadow over Thailand’s successful hosting of APEC Summit

The Prayut Chan-o-cha government managed to secure endorsement for its ambitious Bangkok Goals on Bio-Circular-Green Economy (BCG) agenda at the conclusion of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, but street violence during anti-government protests severely damaged Thailand’s international credibility for lacking people participation in the event.

“By adopting the Bangkok Goals, APEC moves forward with outlining how to achieve its comprehensive and ambitious sustainability and inclusion objectives, while reinforcing and contributing to ongoing global actions,” said the Bangkok Goals statement issued at the end of the summit on November 19.

Thai delegations had put in a lot of effort over the past months to insert the idea of its new economic model into the APEC architecture for achieving more balanced, inclusive, and sustainable growth in the region.

While Bangkok Goals addressed nothing beyond the Putrajaya Vision 2040 and Aotearoa Plan of Action adopted in 2020 and 2021 respectively, it highlighted four areas: environmental challenges such as climate change; sustainable and inclusive trade and investment; biodiversity and resource management; as well as waste management. It set no conditions and timeframe to reach the goals.

Established in 1989, the APEC is a non-binding consultative forum, where 21 economies come together to exchange views on how to adjust their respective economic policies in accordance with the dynamic global economy on a voluntary basis.

The Bangkok Goals statement said that all relevant APEC mechanisms including committees, sub-committees, secretariat and senior officials would integrate BCG into their work plans. Senior officials of the group will have overall responsibility for monitoring and evaluating progress of the goals on BCG economy.

BCG this far and no further?

A seasoned diplomat said the Bangkok Goals on BCG might not endure beyond the summit in Thailand as the next host US has its own agenda to steer the APEC for different purposes.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told US Vice President Kamala Harris during the handover ceremony that he hoped the BCG economic model would be one of the main factors bringing members together.

Harris said the next APEC Summit would be held in San Francisco to strengthen economic relationships throughout the region, including by increasing two-way trade flow and free flow of capital, which would support millions of American jobs.

The US vice president told Prayut during a bilateral meeting that she welcomed his BCG model as an important effort to accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis, but made no promises on the US carrying the Bangkok Goals torch when it chairs APEC.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his remarks during the handover that the US would host the APEC next year under the theme “Creating a resilient and sustainable future for all to continue to advance Putrajaya Vision 2040 through three priorities: interconnectedness, innovation, and inclusivity.”

“These priorities align with the Putrajaya vision of the three drivers of inclusive growth – trade and investment; innovation and digitalization; and strong, balanced, secure, sustainable, and inclusive growth. And it will also further the Aotearoa Plan of Action,” he said without mentioning the Bangkok Goals.

While the APEC mainly focuses on economic matters, global geo-politics always overshadows the meeting. The hardest part for APEC this year was finding appropriate wordings in the joint ministerial statement to address the war in Ukraine waged by member Russia since February, according to a senior official at Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since the ministers failed to reach a common stance on the war, the joint statement simply reflected different positions of the members in other forums such as the UN Security Council and General Assembly, where resolutions adopted by majority vote deplored the aggression by Russia against Ukraine and demanded its complete and unconditional withdrawal from Ukraine territory.

While most of the APEC members condemned the war and realized it caused human suffering and exacerbated the existing fragilities in the global economy, such as constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting the supply chain and heightening energy and food insecurities, some members including Russia itself, China, Vietnam and host Thailand viewed and assessed the situation differently.

To avoid an impasse, the joint statement only said “…recognizing that APEC is not the forum to resolve security issues, we acknowledge that security issues can have significant consequences for the global economy”.

However, the Thai government banked on food and cultural shows during the APEC meetings from November 14-19 being attractive enough to bring more visitors to Thailand. Prime Minister Prayut has instructed state agencies overseeing tourism to exploit the APEC momentum for boosting tourism during the festive season from December until New Year.

Protests and ‘greenwashing’

While executives of private companies have their APEC Business Advisory Council and the APEC CEO summit as forums to push forward their demands on when they would sit together with leaders of the group, civic groups in Thailand employed street protests to call attention.

They wanted the APEC leaders to reject the Thai government’s BCG proposal, saying the economic model is a “greenwashing” machine for big conglomerates. Student activist Passaravalee Thanakitvibulphol blamed Prayut for using the APEC Summit to legitimize the exploitative BCG for the benefit of capitalists, not ordinary people.

Domestically the BCG economic model emphasizes the use of high technology and innovation to turn biodiversity into business profit. The scheme is mainly driven by state agencies and big conglomerates such as SCG, PTT, ThaiBev, CP, Betagro and Thai Union.

Hundreds of protesters belonging to different groups, such as Thalufah and Assembly of the Poor, from various parts of the country gathered at Lan Khon Mueang town square, in front of the first City Hall in Phra Nakhon district, from November 16. They ended up clashing with anti-riot police on November 18 when they tried to move closer to Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, 8.5 kilometers away, the venue of the summit. Some of them, including journalists, were injured during clashes near Democracy Monument.

More than 30 protesters were injured, and one of them — Payu Boonsopon — might lose his right eye after being hit by a rubber bullet. Two dozen protesters were arrested after the clashes and later released on bail. They subsequently filed a lawsuit against police for malfeasance and excessive use of force to handle the peaceful demonstration.

Many human rights defenders including Amnesty International, Fortify Rights and Union for Civil Liberty condemned the use of force to control the demonstration.

“While Thai authorities roll out the red carpet for world leaders at APEC, Thai people exercising their rights were met with arbitrary arrests and excessive force,” said Mookdapa Yangyuenpradorn, a Human Rights Associate with Fortify Rights. “Any officers responsible for excessive force should be investigated and held accountable.”

The National Human Rights Commission would be investigating the incident. It urged all parties to uphold human rights principles and refrain from the use of force to solve the problems.

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk


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