The Nationalism Card


Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva

A temptation for governments, and Asia is no exception, is to start bashing (rhetorically) a neighbour to drum up domestic support, or at least to distract from problems at home. The trouble is, the passions that get inflamed by such rhetoric can take on a life of their own, something Chinese authorities learned–or at least should have–when they tacitly backed anti-Japanese protests in 2005.

According to Thailand’s The Nation newspaper today, Cambodia and Thailand are themselves dabbling in nationalism. As Luke Hunt reported recently for The Diplomat, simmer tensions were heightened with the offer last month to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of a position as an economic adviser to Cambodian Premier Hun Sen.

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I asked Luke today what he thought of The Nation report’s suggestion that tensions are being played up for domestic gain. He told me:

‘I think there’s some truth to it but only some. In Cambodia Hun Sen likes political brinkmanship too much. He already enjoys massive political support, particularly in the countryside so he doesn’t need to do this. But he has a long history of playing on nationalist sentiment and the opposition in Cambodia is virtually non-existent. Hence he is using the Thai government as a whipping post, partly because he enjoys it, partly because he dislikes [Thai Premier] Abhisit so much and partly because–like all politicians–he thrives off the competition.’

But he added:

‘I think Abhist’s a little different and is still in short pants politically speaking. He was thrown into the deep end when he became prime minister and didn’t know how to handle Thaksin and Hun Sen’s theatrics. In the end he handled it well in that his popularity rating rose on the back of Thaksin’s support for Hun Sen, who most Thais dislike intensely. Thus I think he’s developed a taste for it and could play the troubled neighbour card much more in the future, which I do think is potentially dangerous.’

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