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In Search of Maritime Grand Strategy: Thailand’s Fisheries Policy under the Military Rule

Thai governments, for decades, have never treated the problem of forced labors and other serious allegations against its billion-dollar fishing industry as its primary concerns. Worse still, since the coup in 2014 Thailand’s ruling junta has constantly faced the mounting pressure at home and abroad. Portrayed as a repressive authoritarian regime, the tasks for reconstituting the image of Thailand as well as resolving the junta’s crisis of legitimacy are of paramount importance, overshadowing the efforts to eliminate modern-day slavery in Thai fisheries. These growing problems need to be urgently addressed. Without doubt, Thailand is in quest of maritime grand strategy.

John Lewis Gaddis, world-renowned Yale historian, defined grand strategy as “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” (Gaddis, 2018, p. 21) Although grand strategy may be widely employed in the realm of war and statecraft, but grand strategy, as Gaddis argued, “need not apply only to war and statecraft: it’s potentially applicable to any endeavor in which means must be deployed in the pursuit of important ends.” (Gaddis, 2009, p. 7) In applying the concept of grand strategy to the case of Thailand’s fisheries, the author raises one important question: does Thailand have a grand strategy? 

Thailand is one of the largest fish and seafood exporters, especially in shrimp and tuna products. Both fisheries and seafood sectors greatly contributed to the economy of Thailand, with approximately USD$ 6.5 billion worth of total export revenue in 2016 (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2016), equivalent to almost 9 percent of agricultural output. (Department of Fisheries, 2017) However, the industry has faced many setbacks and challenges, particularly the sharp rise in oil prices resulting in the increasing expenses for the companies, the economic slowdown of Thailand’s trading partners as well as the overfishing and overcapacity of Thai fleets. But the real conundrum is the prevalence of forced labors, making the Kingdom the target of scrutiny. 

From the Guardian’s exposé on modern-day sea slaves in Thai-flagged vessels, to the Kingdom’s downgrade in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) and the EU’s ‘yellow card’ warning, Thailand needs to strive hard to clear its name. By rolling out comprehensive reform roadmaps, Thailand’s junta has made some progress on tackling the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. Nonetheless, imposing a self-proclaimed IUU-free policy would not bring about a change.

The 2018 report of Human Rights Watch has pointed out that human trafficking and brutalization of migrant labors, mostly Burmese and Cambodian, on Thai fishing fleets still have not yet been solved. (Human Rights Watch, 2018) In a similar vein, according to the Greenpeace’s major investigation, the Thai billion-dollar seafood companies have continued to reap benefits while turning a blind eye to the continuing labor violations in the industry.  (Greenpeace, 2018) 

On the one hand, Thai-flagged vessels have been encouraged to operate in isolated and unpoliced waters thousands of miles away from the Kingdom, partly because of the depletion and overexploitation of fish livestock in Thailand’s neighboring waters. On the other hand, the more crucial factor spurring Thai fleets to do so is the strict implementation of new fisheries law in the main fishing ports in the country. Unlike the overhyped ‘Thailand 4.0’ and ‘Thailand-20-year-national-strategy,’ Thai government has introduced new frameworks for reforming Thai fisheries industry in all dimensions, for prime example, a fisheries traceability system, a monitoring, control and surveillance, and the development of catch certification system. These mechanisms had led to some considerable progress in promoting the industry to be in accordance with international standards. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2018) Nonetheless, the working conditions of forced labors still have not been significantly improved. 

Currently, there is no official record of how many workers are enslaved in Thai vessels. However, some believed that the number of kidnapped and unregistered workers could rise up to 200,000 people. Ironically, in 2015 Thai authorities declared that they could not “identify a single case of forced labor” from 474,334 fishery workers. (Human Rights Watch, 2018, p. 1) Doubtless, the junta-installed administration can be able to freely exercise the powerful section of Article 44 to deal with the problem, as Prime Minister Prayuth himself once remarked. However, the critique on the country’s shortcomings in its fisheries monitoring persists. Ultimately speaking, Thailand has apparently focused mostly on its immediate goals: to receive a better recognition chiefly from the European countries. As the European Union has been considered as one of the top trade partners of Thailand, if the ‘red card’ were issued, it would trigger significant economic repercussions to Thai economy. Thailand would be banned from exporting fishery products, worth over USD$ 700 million, to the EU market. 

These theatrical exercises undertaken by the junta to satisfy the EU not only Thailand’s grand strategic deficit but also the mentality of Thai military leaders in what General George C. Marshall termed as theateriris – “the tendency of military commander to concentrate at the needs of their own theater of operation and not at the requirements of fighting the war as a whole.” (Gaddis, 2009, p. 16) 

Ideally speaking, Prayuth Chan-O-Cha administration, should consider the forced labors and other right abuses as the core interest of Thailand and join hands with Southeast Asian countries and external great powers to develop better equipped and sustainable practices to meet the international criteria. Their endeavors will go down in history. Besides, the administration should look beyond its theateriris– the “cosmetic reforms.” (Buakamsri, 2017, p. 9) at home and abroad– and embrace a vision of quarterback which, as Gaddis put it wisely, possesses “the ability to see all the parts in relation to the whole.” (Gaddis, 2009, p. 16) 

Regrettably, it is impractical for Thailand, a country stuck in a seemingly endless political contestation, to attain such substantive transformation. This political constraint will undoubtedly hamstring the country’s aspiration to become a regional leader in tackling the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. 

It can be concluded that without a grand strategic vision, the brutalization and slave labors in Thai fishing industry will be, once again, swept under the carpet. Thailand’s return to civilian democratic government appears to be, more or less, the decisive factor for Thailand’s fishing industry in the long run if the country wants to promote sustainable fishing and regains its international recognition. 

About the author: Thapiporn Suporn teaches International Relations at the School of International Affairs, Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration, Chiang Mai University. 

Photo from https://shiptoshorerights.org/

About the author: Thapiporn Suporn teaches International Relations at the School of International Affairs, Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration, Chiang Mai University. 

Works Cited 
BUAKAMSRI, T. 2017. Major change for the Thai and global seafood industry. Bangkok Post.
DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES, MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND COOPERATIVES. 2017. The Situation of The Fisheries Economy in The First Quarter of 2017 and The Tendency of The Second Quarter of 2017 [Online]. Available: https://www.fisheries.go.th/strategy/UserFiles/files/20-9-60(1).pdf [Accessed].
FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANISATION. 2016. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture [Online]. Available: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i5555e.pdf [Accessed 25 July 2018].
GADDIS, J. L. 2009. What Is Grand Strategy? American Grand Strategy After War. Triangle Institute for Security Studies and Duke University Program on American Grand Strategy.
GADDIS, J. L. 2018. On Grand Strategy, London, Penguin.
GREENPEACE 2018. Turn the Tide: Human Rights Abuses and Illegal Fishing in Thailand’s Overseas Fishing Industry Auckland: Greenpeace New Zealand.
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH 2018. Hidden Chains: Rights Abuses and Forced Labor in Thailand’s Fishing Industry New York: Human Rights Watch.
MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS. 2018. Thailand is preparing to declare the IUU-free Thailand [Online]. Available: http://www.mfa.go.th/europetouch/th/news/8359/90093-Thailand-is-preparin... [Accessed 5 July 2018].