Friday, July 3, 2009

Deconstructing Pavin Chachavalpongpun: Thailand's Foreign Policy

Bangkok Post

Since Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled in a military coup in September 2006, Thailand has arguably survived without a foreign policy. Successive governments were too preoccupied with having to fight for their political existence. The unending political wrangling between various factions effectively put the country's foreign policy on the back burner.

Some Thais found it difficult to imagine if having a clear foreign policy was necessarily a good thing, especially if such foreign policy is to be made in the same way it was under Thaksin's rule.

What was wrong with Thaksin's foreign policy?

Thaksin himself would argue that he successfully elevated Thailand's international standing from obscurity to hegemonisation, through a myriad grandiose foreign policy initiatives, including the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) and the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (Acmecs), and therefore transformed Thailand from a mid-range power into the region's leading nation.

Thailand a la Thaksin became a donor country.

He promoted a business-oriented foreign policy that was designed to aggressively search for more markets for Thai products. Numerous free trade agreements were signed.

He even nominated his foreign minister, Surakiart Sathirathai, for the position of United Nations secretary-general.

Thaksin was never short of ambitious objectivess.

Thaksin also revamped the Foreign Ministry, with the CEO ambassador scheme being put in place. He then began to "colonise" this state agency and turned it into a policy-making factory that served his domestic needs, legitimate or otherwise.

Yet, Thaksin's foreign policy was as much ambitious as artificial. His impressive initiatives simply overlooked the national capacity and constraints. More importantly, they were tainted by conflicts of interest involving the corporate concerns of the Shinawatra family. His personal business interests in neighbouring countries revealed the exploitative nature of Thai foreign policy.

Ah, the joys of shameless propaganda. Observe the set up. Compare the evil Thaksin with the enlightened and holy Abhisit.

First of all, I think it is fair to point out on my part that from my personal memory, I don't think Thaksin was this great foreign policy genius. Despite the lies in The Nation and Bangkok Post, he was routinely criticized and committed major faux pauxs. There was no universal love for Thaksin in the international press or the international community.

Where I think Thaksin did good?

I think he handled the Tsunami crisis fairly well-- even though I think it is a shame that some his cronies stole some of the donor money. On the other hand, I think he handled the chicken flu and Sars crisis poorly.

I think he handled the Cambodia crisis fairly well. That could have turned into an absolute disaster. What happened in Cambodia was an act of war.

For Thailand, when you look at the net benefits, free trade is good for the country, so his free trade agreements were successful policy initiatives. On the other hand, I don't think the Chinese trade agreement has been good for Thai farmers.

If you look at bi-lateral trade during the Thaksin years, it absolutely boomed. It doubled exports from 65 billion to 130 billion between 2001 and 2006. The trade numbers for Russia, China, the Middle East and India quadrupled. (BoT) I think you have to give Thaksin credit there. He really made efforts in those markets.

I think he did a good job with the APEC summit.

Depending on your perspective, he was either a good or bad ally to the US. One could argue that allowing torture of foreign nationals on Thai soil was not a good thing. On the other hand, the terrorists who were captured in Thailand were not good people and major operatives of Al Qaeda.

I am not privy to any behind the scenes politics, but I would reckon that relations with the US were not good, because the US gave no support to Thaksin whatsoever for being ousted in a coup.

I would argue probably the same for Western Europe.

I think his record with ASEAN was mixed. With the demise of the despots in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, he wanted to emerge as a regional leader to fill that vacuum. I think he may have succeeded if it weren't for the coup. On the other hand, Thaksin had an uncouthness about him that rubbed people the wrong way. But you can't make omelettes without breaking some eggs.

People fault him for being too soft on Burma because of personal business.

I think Thaksin was a firm believer in the Chulalongkorn Doctrine. He believed in balancing all powers off against each other.

I think Thaksin had vision. He wanted to put Thailand(and himself) on the map regionally and internationally. You can't fault him for having vision. Most Thai prime ministers are content with Thailand forever being a 3rd or 4th tier country without any significance in regional or international affairs.

Thaksin may have been a legend in his own mind, but the guy had balls.

Under the Abhisit administration, Thai foreign policy has undergone an extreme makeover. The Democrat-led government has rejected Thaksin's business-first mentality and re-introduced a seemingly principle-based foreign policy. This time principle, not profit, represents the mainstay of Thai diplomacy.

By denouncing Thaksin's past initiatives, the current government hopes it would also de-legitimise his foreign policy - a much-needed strategy to alienate Thaksin further from Thai political circles.

Members of the academia and local media seem to have embraced Mr Abhisit's new direction in Thai foreign policy. His government has spent the past six months fixing the country's diplomatic missteps caused by Thaksin and his cronies.

Thailand's cosy relations with her immediate neighbours, during the Thaksin years, were mostly built on personal relations, and sometimes did not necessarily reflect national interests. The Abhisit administration has re-invented Thai foreign policy to become more accountable, especially in the year Thailand is chairing Asean.

Because his government has no record of civilian supremacy, injecting a democratic principle in foreign policy might just redeem a sense of legitimacy it sorely needs in these hours of political turbulence.

Last month, the government issued a statement, on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, voicing grave concern at the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, in which she is charged with violating her house arrest rules by allowing American John Yettaw into her residence. Thailand saw the need to toughen its stance and that of Asean vis-a-vis the Burmese junta to prove the country's respect for democracy - a position extolled by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The media called it a renaissance of the "flexible engagement policy" initiated by the Democrat Party in the late 1990s. It legitimised the Thai concern over the troubling domestic situation in the neighbouring country especially if it had the potential to create a negative impact on Thailand.

Burma's response to the Thai statement was predictable. It reproached Asean's statement and criticised Thailand for breaching the non-interference rule. What followed was the Burmese army's attacks on the Karen National Union which disturbed the Thai-Burmese border by the influx of Burmese refugees fleeing the fighting, probably as punishment for Thailand's hard-line policy towards Rangoon.

With Cambodia, Thailand may have continued to play a nationalistic card in the Preah Vihear temple case. At a deeper level, what the Abhisit government has done in "de-personalising" Thai policy towards Cambodia should be commended. Many Thai-Cambodian shady businesses were reportedly promoted by the Thaksin regime. This explains why Thai policy has often been held hostage by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen has been known for his sharp tongue. He once angrily responded, "Suvanand was not even worth a blade of grass at Angkor."

In 2003, Thai actress Suvanand Kongying, was misquoted as saying that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand, an incident that caused the ransacking of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh.

More recently, Hun Sen confronted the Thai leadership, suggesting that Thailand should give up its Asean chairmanship because of its escalating domestic situation.

He himself is a devout nationalist, often speaking about the use of force against Thailand to protect so-called Cambodian sovereignty. His love for Thaksin remains evident.

The latest Thai opposition to the UN declaration at the World Heritage meeting in Spain, with a proposal that the grounds of the disputed temple be placed under joint Thai-Cambodian maintenance, could be perceived not only as a defence of Thai interests, but also a bold move in Thai diplomacy which refuses to become too elastic in accordance with the preferences of Cambodian leaders like in the past.

Domestically, Thai politics seems to have calmed down, at least for now. This allows the government to rethink and reformulate its future foreign policy. So far, the making of a more responsible and transparent diplomacy has been met with a favourable response from foreign ministry officials.

But not everyone appreciates the latest reinvention of Thai foreign policy. Starkly differing judgements continue to surround the Abhisit government's push for a new direction in the country's foreign policy, which can come across as belligerent and antagonistic towards Thai neighbours.

However, as the Abhisit government has consistently argued, Thailand might have gained a few enemies as a result of its tougher diplomacy.

But the country's foreign policy, for the first time since 2001, has definitely gained a more ethical and moral reputation.

I threw up in my mouth after reading this propaganda.

Filling the upper echelons of the foreign ministry with Thaksin haters like Kosit is not a foreign policy.

Abhisit has no vision. Like in domestic politics, he thinks all he has to do is show off his aristocratic pedigree, his foreign degrees, his good looks and nice English accent and think that is all that is needed to get respect and have everybody swoon like teenage school girls.

Pavin is talking out both sides of the mouth: Thailand should come down hard on Burma for its human rights abuses--even though Thailand has no moral authority to lecture any military junta about anything-- while pounding the drums of Bang Rajan and whipping up right-wing nationalist sentiment over a Khmer Temple on Cambodian soil.

Let us count the ways of Abhisit's disgrace:

1. ASEAN summit cancelled because he can't guarantee security for heads of state.

2. Has a foreign minister who believes in taking over airports and calls a neighboring PM a thug.

3. Covers up for the military during the Rohingya boat people episode and goes on international TV and lies about it.

4. Unnecessarily whips up right-wing sentiment over Preah Vihear because of his domestic policy failings.

5. Goes hat in hand begging for foreign money in China.

6. Crying about Burma's human rights abuses while he uses state power to destroy his political enemies.

7. Thinks it is bad and evil for Arabs to own farmland but thinks it is perfectly acceptable for the Chinese to own Thai banks and national infrastructure.

All this bleating on and on about Abhisit's morality and ethics is a joke. Abhisit has no problems using one of the most corrupt politicians in the history of Thai politics, Newin Chidchob, and the military to come to power through nefarious means.

Abhisit has one foreign policy, which I am going to coin the term the "Panda Doctrine."

Look cute and cuddly and try to impress people with his pedigree and good looks and hope for the best in captivity.

1 comment:

Mr. Wrigley said...

Panda Doctrine! love it

Rightly or wrongly personalized politics and business is how Asia works, so depersonalizing it doesn't make much sense other than to maybe appease Westerners (UK/US) who think personalizing business and government operations is evil even though it is practiced daily in those countries.

The Abhisit government's dealings in Cambodia have been an abject failure (not saying that Thaksin didn't try to work cozy relations with Hun Sen for his own businesses--though penetration of his businesses in Cambodia may have happened with or without Thaksin--certainly being PM helps). The Abhisit government's failure to accept the ruling of UNESCO is an embarrassment and makes Thailand look pathetic in the eyes of the international community. The goverment's policy on the temple is driven by nationalism and nothing else. In may not be said in public, but everyone know that Kasit is a total whack-job and concession to PAD. But as Abhisit always likes to remind us, "My government is a democratically elected government, I received the majority of votes from elected parliamentarians." Hey Abhisit, you are technically correct (if we overlook the biased court decisions (not to mention Constitution) and the failure of the previous governments because the police couldn't enforce the law) but your government suffers tremendously from a legitimacy and credibility deficit in the eyes of millions of Thais. Give up your charade pal and call an election.