Thailand's diplomatic challenges

STRAINED TIES: Myanmar monks at Sittwe of Rakhine State, western Myanmar, protesting against a Thai court's verdict sentencing to death two Myanmar migrant workers. The death sentences were for the murder of two British tourists in southern Thailand.


    Jan 05, 2016

    Thailand's diplomatic challenges

    THAILAND'S diplomats will face a tough time this year due mainly to contradiction and inconsistency manifested by the government, especially on abuses of civil and political rights.

    Although Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has made good promises on respecting human rights and democratic values, somehow implementation is still short of satisfactory, which has undermined his do-gooder image and intent.

    Major international human rights groups have placed the country on their watch lists.

    In the middle of this year, Thailand will have a reality check when the 193 UN members vote for new members to fill non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in 2017-18. At least 129 votes are needed to ensure a seat - a Herculean task at this particular moment.

    When the Abhisit Vejjajiva government decided in 2009 to run for it, the then PM was confident Thailand would stand as a successful democratic nation.

    Nobody would have imagined the kind of political turmoil we have been encountering since then.

    The plan was also supported by the Yingluck Shinawatra government, which launched an early UNSC campaign with much fanfare in 2013.

    The current government went ahead with the bid.

    At the year-end press conference, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai highlighted the country's diplomatic achievements with an 11-page report. He reiterated Thailand has overcome hard times, become more peaceful and moved towards reform and strengthened national resiliency.

    He also gave some interesting statistics. Mr Prayut made official visits to 10 countries, and attended 15 summits and top-level meetings.

    In a nutshell, the country's diplomatic activities last year were concentrated on the so-called Asean plus three countries (Japan, China and South Korea).

    Therefore, the UNSC decision is indicative of Bangkok's strong desire to "go international" with a broader global diplomatic outlook, which used to be regional in scope, focusing on Asia and Asean with some specific outreach programmes.

    Whatever the outcome, Thailand hopes to learn and earn new respect from fresh diplomatic experience in initiating and forging existing and new ideas among the developing world.

    Furthermore, Bangkok also wants to demonstrate that the political upheaval and power seizure of May 2014 has not interrupted its international responsibility or marred its actions.

    After the coup, Thailand has become more active with issues related to irregular migration, nuclear safety, as well as disarmament, gender equality and sustainable development.

    For example, the UN Sustainable Development Goals have a special meaning here as this economic approach has been practised for more than three decades.

    Thailand has been one of the strong advocates of such economic sufficiency.

    Thailand was recently elected to the chair of Group 77, which has 135 UN members. Eventually, Thailand hopes the current effort could serve as a bridge-builder between North-South and South-South.

    Obviously, critics would argue otherwise, citing numerous violations of human rights.

    The recent repatriation of Uighurs and two Chinese dissidents, which caused uproar internationally, were cases in point.

    Worse still, the Thai Journalists' Association listed 18 violations of press freedoms in the last 18 months under the current government - the worst record of press intimidation and suppression since 1992.

    It is a shameful record that will have a negative impact on the country's international standing. If there are similar actions again in the first half of this year, it will be hard for the country to get more support from UN members.

    In fact, Thailand has already begun this year with a bad omen.

    The World Economic Forum at Davos has just given up its invitation to Mr Prayut as a keynote speaker at its annual event, opting for other more recognised regional leaders such as Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

    So far, the UNSC campaign team has been wise in picking eminent Thai personalities and diplomats as special envoys.

    Over the past several months, a Thai team has visited developing countries in Africa and the Pacific islands. Since the middle of last year, several dozen fact-finding trips were arranged for UN permanent representatives from developing countries to visit Thailand - the number could reach 100 UN developing members by May.

    While these efforts are commendable and must be intensified, the Prayut government's most urgent task now is to rid itself of contradiction and inconsistency, as well as figures that only erode the country's diplomatic credentials.