Beijing tightens imperial grip

Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow in September 2014 blindfolded with a red scarf, symbolising Communist China’s political repression. Source: Wikimedia


China’s ability to control its southern neighbours’ domestic affairs raises increasing doubts about their independence. Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand appear to have assumed quasi-colonial status. As the Obama years and his “Asian pivot” policy come to an end, the US president has entirely failed to boost waning American influence in Asean.

The arrival of the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, and his “son of a bitch” taunt to Barack Obama, have underlined how Washington has lost another close Asean ally.

Nay Pyi Taw is currently holding an inquiry to assess whether it will allow China to flood vast swathes of Kachin State with its controversial Myitsone dam project. There appears to be no support for the project in Myanmar and the power generated will largely go to China. But still the public waits to see if its democratically elected government will give the ruinous project the go-ahead.

Last week, under the full glare of the international media, Beijing’s iron grip on Thailand was demonstrated.

Its junta was exposed practising eye-watering double standards in its treatment of two foreigners, Swiss whistleblower Xavier Justo and Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong.

Wong, 19, played a prominent role in the 2014 Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong with his so-called “umbrella movement”, while Justo, 49, with a wife and young child, is a key witness in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Justo was sentenced to three years in a Thai jail in June 2015 for blackmailing his former employer, PetroSaudi International, a Saudi oil firm and a one-time partner of 1MDB. Justo leaked information on PetroSaudi and 1MBD to the media.

Toh Han Shih of MLex argues in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post that the denial of Wong’s entry to Thailand and 12-hour detention on October 4, demonstrated Beijing’s decisive grip on the “land of smiles”.

The Wall Street Journal even called Bangkok “China’s enforcer” due to the junta’s increasingly fawning obeisance to Chinese wishes.

Wong had been invited to speak at Chulalongkorn University at a ceremony to mark 40 years since the Thammasat University massacres by the Thai military and royalist mobs.

The ceremony carried uncomfortable parallels for the Thai junta.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha admitted that he was doing Beijing’s bidding when he spoke to the media. The former general said: “Officials [in China] have requested to take him back. It’s Chinese officials’ business. Don’t get involved too much. They are all Chinese people no matter Hong Kong or mainland China.”

Prayuth’s office said it was “aware that Mr Wong had been active in resistance movements against other foreign governments, and that if such actions were taken within Thailand, they could eventually affect Thailand’s relations with other nations”.

While Thailand insisted that no “instruction or order” was given to arrest Wong, beleaguered human rights activists are not convinced.

There was a similar case earlier in the year in the run-up to the annual bloodbath on the roads that is Thailand’s Songkran water festival.

Rather than looking at the enormous impending death toll that was about to commence, Asean’s media was filled with manhunt stories.

Two Uyghur “terror” suspects were being hunted, first in southern Thailand, then Malaysia. They were eventually unmasked as asylum seekers, trying to escape Beijing’s oppressive regime in western China. Panic over. The Asean news agenda could return from state-sponsored frenzy to state-approved tedium and the two men were returned by the Malaysian authorities to China, to face whatever treatment awaited them.

In contrast, to the junta’s treatment of Wong, Bangkok refused to transfer Justo to a Swiss jail, despite Switzerland’s requests.

In August, Justo was granted a royal pardon, which meant his jail term was cut to one third, leaving him nine more months to serve.

If Justo was returned to Switzerland, he could presumably make fresh revelations about 1MDB. The Swiss attorney general has alleged that at least US$4.8 billion was stolen from 1MDB and its related companies. The US Department of Justice has claimed that US$3.5 billion was expropriated from 1MDB, of which millions of dollars went to Malaysian Prime Minster Najib Razak, according to the Department of Justice.

On September 17, Switzerland’s Le Temps newspaper alleged that Najib used his Thai visit earlier in the month to interfere in Justo’s incarceration on the sidelines of the sixth Malaysia-Thailand Annual Consultation conference. Najib’s office denied the reports and insisted the government adhered to a policy of non-interference in its neighbours’ domestic affairs.

Thailand’s justice minister, General Paiboon Koomchaya, told the Malaysian news agency Bernama last month that the denial of Justo’s request to serve the remainder of his sentence in Switzerland was a Thai legal requirement. Only prisoners with more than a year could be transferred, Paiboon said.

“How can another country interfere in our internal affairs?” he asked.

The comment contrasts with the premier’s statement that Wong’s treatment was determined by Beijing. In the cases of both Wong and Justo, Thailand’s already tattered reputation for openness has been given another blow.

The lesson appears relatively simple: anyone who angers Beijing should book a flight beyond Asean if they wish to avoid being sent straight back into China’s hands.