Foreign Policy Under Yingluck: Return to Thaksin’s CEO Style?
It has been six months since the election that brought the first woman into Thailand’s top political position, Yingluck Shinawatra.
As a prime minister, Yingluck has encountered several difficult issues, from the devastating floods to the attempt to provide amnesty for her fugitive brother Thaksin to the increasing cases of lese-majeste.
But there is one area in which Yingluck has appeared to be doing well so far: foreign affairs. It is fair to say that since Thaksin’s downfall in 2006, Thailand has had no tangible foreign policy. The Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat governments were short-lived. And the Abhisit Vejjajiva period was marked by conflicts with neighboring countries, especially Cambodia.
It is therefore a real test for Yingluck to reinvent Thai diplomacy, departing from antagonism toward neighboring countries. In terms of Thailand-Cambodia relations, Yingluck paid a high-profile visit to Phnom Penh, as the first stop on her introductory tour. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was gleeful to roll out a red carpet to receive the Thai female leader. For now, relations between the two countries have returned to normal. And the secret to this success is that issues in this bilateral relationship have simply become less politicized, particularly on the Thai part.
Yingluck then went on to visit a number of countries that are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Burma, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and recently the Philippines. Symbolic as they were, these visits signaled Thailand’s recovery from political illness at home and its eagerness to play a role in Asean. But a question must be asked: How realistic is this Thai eagerness?
During her visit to Naypyidaw in December, Yingluck demonstrated that her government wanted to diversify Thailand’s policy options toward Burma, by reaching out to both the government and the opposition. Yingluck held a discussion with President Thein Sein and also paid a visit to Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy. At the end of her tour, Yingluck offered her support for national reconciliation in Burma, wishing to see further political reforms in the country long governed by the military.
Can Thailand, despite these bold moves, expect a shift in its foreign policy, which traditionally sought to advance national interests at the expense of promoting universal values, such as democracy and human rights protection? My answer is rather pessimistic.
Ultimately, both Yingluck and her foreign minister, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, have no experience in diplomacy. And one must not forget that Yingluck is indeed Thaksin in disguise. Accordingly, it is likely that she will restore the “Thaksinized” foreign policy that was essentially commerce-driven without any respect for principles.
In 2001 to 2006, Thailand under Thaksin was so ambitious that it thought it could conquer the world.
Thaksin, a successful businessman, was confident that he could transform Thailand into a hegemon dominating smaller and weaker states in the region. He then bypassed Asean, once a cornerstone of Thai foreign policy. He perceived Asean as a representation of “old politics” — the kind of politics sullied by rigid bureaucratic processes. Instead, Thaksin invented a myriad of business-centric cooperative frameworks, including the Asia Cooperation Dialogue and the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy. He also strengthened Thai economic cooperation with major trading partners through the conclusion of many free trade agreements. Undoubtedly, the Thaksin period witnessed the most colorful and innovative foreign policy Thailand had had in decades.
The remapping of Thailand in the age of globalization put Thaksin’s foreign policy in the spotlight: he was tipped to become Asia’s next leader. Thaksin endorsed diplomatic activism, and in this, he wanted to place Thailand at the core of the regional order. Thaksin turned the kingdom into a company, run by a CEO prime minister whose task was to evaluate economic costs and benefits in the conduct of diplomacy.
But it wasn’t just the content of foreign policy that changed. The operational mode within the Foreign Ministry also underwent an extreme makeover. Representatives of the nation and the monarch were now becoming CEO ambassadors who would visit their customer for product demonstrations. While CEO ambassadors were dressed with more power, the role of the Foreign Ministry in the formulation of foreign policy diminished.
The radical transformation of the Foreign Ministry has left deep hostility between those who agreed and disagreed with Thaksin’s approach. .
If Thaksin is indeed behind the formulation of Thailand’s foreign policy in this Yingluck era, then he has to learn from the mistakes he made while he served as prime minister. Thaksin’s past foreign policy initiatives might have provided his government with a channel to secure Thailand’s supposed national interests. But along the way, he and his family members were accused of using state mechanisms for personal gain.
Yingluck needs to open up the foreign policy decision-making process, making it transparent to the public. More importantly, her foreign policy for the next few years will have to be based on economic interests and good governance. Her government has received a popular mandate through democratic means and Thailand cannot run away from a new international environment that has become more democratic.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He is the author of “Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy.”