Thailand and the world: Do we gain from a high profile?
IT IS CUSTOMARY for the Thai media and public to entertain the notion that we should stay out of troubles at all costs, especially when the circumstances involve neighboring or foreign countries. The question often asked these days: What is in it for us? They often praised the Thai wisdom of yesteryears coming from its survivalist's instinct unmatched by all neighbors in Southeast Asia.
They have argued that Thailand's independence has been maintained since ancient times because our ancestors were smart and were not pro-active as the present leaders. Indeed, they were passive - often looking for ways out of trouble through diplomacy and Siamspeak (Thaispeak). It is disturbing that this attitude, strongly prevalent today, often turns into cynicism and arrogance. Apparently, persuasive leaders of all strata, commentators and opinion makers continue to indulge in self-aggrandisement of their country's uniqueness and selfish-thinking that if we take good care of ourselves, everything will be fineónever mind the outside world.
It was interesting to read several editorials and vernacular columnists in the past two weeks criticising the government's handling of the arms seizure at Don Mueang
Airport on December 11. They thought the impounding of illegal cargo was another scheme by the Abhisit government to gain praise |from foreign countries, especially the US.
Groundless allegations by the Pheu Thai
Party were picked up and used by several columnists. In addition, they emphasised that the US provided the intelligence to the Thai authorities for this successful operation because Washington wanted to make use of Thailand. A leading columnist even belittled the whole Thai intelligence community for its repeated failures to detect continuing bomb attacks in the troubled southern provinces since 2004.
Mathichon's editorial on Thursday was very succinct in urging the Thai government to distance itself from the arms seizure for fear it could be problematic and harm the country's security interests in the near future. Other columnists fervently believed that North Korea and Kazakhstan, which were involved in the shipment, could come up with retaliatory measures against Thailand for meddling with their arms cargo. This kind of phobia, or rather ignorance, is still prevalent among media and opinion leaders.
Only one or two commentators mentioned the importance of Thailand's compliance with the UN Security Council Resolution 1874, passed last June, which imposed expanded sanctions against Pyongyang.
Indeed, it has been the current government's intention, as reiterated by Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, to be a good UN member by adhering to relevant UN resolutions. Granted such strong sentiment, some of the commentators went as far as saying it was none of Thailand's business to get involved because the 35-tonne arms load - illegal or not - just passed through Thai territory. This mindset is not new.
In late 1999, when Thailand decided to dispatch peacekeeping forces to East Timor along with the international forces, the government under Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai
immediately came under fire from the opposition and vernacular press. They interpreted the government's goodwill mission as trouble-seeking acts.
Before East Timor, Thailand was also approached by the UN to send peacekeeping forces to Bosnia-Herzegovina that was eventually turned down. Recently, Kasit has proposed that Asean
should put its peacekeeping resources together and act as a group dealing with the UN, instead of the individual member as is the case today.
In the past, Thailand often turned a blind eye to illegal arms shipments along porous borders from the Burmese or Cambodian sides to conflict zones around the world because these weapons were not used inside Thailand or harmed Thai citizens.
The recent Thai court decision over Russian arms trader, Viktor Bout, not |to be extradited to the US was indicative of such a myopic mentality.
The attitude of the Abhisit government towards emerging multipolarity, or rather the growing global connectivity is pretty clear: Thailand will remain open and engaging at every turn. His one-year Asean
chair has taught him valuable lessons of summit level networking that inevitably increased his profile as well as those of Thailand and Asean.
Strange as it may seem, his proactive diplomacy has been framed as a one-dimensional attempt to deflate criticism at home by most vernacular opinion leaders. Furthermore, opposition also faulted him for escaping the domestic conundrum. None has shown appreciation of his efforts to maintain the country's regional and international profile and capabilities which have been suffering from its dysfunctional political system and endless turmoil in past years.
Since 2006, global public space has been filled with information and views critical of Thailand which can threaten to obliterate everything Thai as we know it. It is unfortunate the public and opinion leaders have not noticed, let alone comprehended, these converging trends and what they could do to the country as a whole.
Abhisit has taken up these challenges both at home and abroad, trying to place Thailand into a proper context and redefine its position internationally. For instance, the government's decision to apply for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council next year and for the non-permanent UNSC seat eight years from now are good testimony of such endeavour.
He obviously does not want to see the demise of Thailand under the debris of much reported divisiveness - colourful as it may seem.
Abhisit's firm but polite handling of Thai-Cambodian conflict is another case in point.
He has been exemplary even though such high-pitched and tit-for-tat rhetoric and strategies could easily intensify and further worsen bilateral ties. But so far he has not yet lost his cool.
Although both sides have yet to calm down, time is actually on Abhisit's side. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's growing intransigence will continue at its own peril. His wishful thinking of seeing a regime change in Thailand will not happen.
In retrospect, after the Asian economic crisis in 1997, Thailand also effectively used its liberal foreign policy to win back support and confidence from the international community. Abhisit has taken similar steps, using Thai diplomacy coupled with his personal charm and knowledge, to regain the country's confidence.
During his one-year premiership, he rendered Thai and Asean
views with efficiency on the global financial crisis, climate change and a myriad of transnational issues.
The outcome of his efforts will ultimately be felt sooner than later.