Last week, Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Thailand’s second largest opposition party, the Move Forward Party (MFP), tweeted his opposition to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine – a conflict that could spiral out of control into a great war. Pita’s call for Russia to “retrieve troops from Ukraine immediately” marks a stark contrast with a cautious stance maintained by Thai authorities and most politicians. His past comments against Myanmar’s military junta also depart from Thailand’s preferred method of backdoor diplomacy. An intriguing question is then raised: If Pita wins the election to become Thailand’s next prime minister, how is he going to handle foreign policy?
Pita, a well-educated businessman in his early 40s, is a popular pick among young voters who are dissatisfied with existing institutions and demand major reforms. One of the MFP’s key selling points is its strict adherence to fundamental rights and freedoms. The party has consistently voiced strong objections to the military-backed government’s media censorship and arrests of activists. In the foreign policy realm, the MFP is very much concerned about respect for international law and the responsibility to protect. In response to the Myanmar conflict, for instance, the MFP has urged the Thai administration to slap harsh sanctions on the illegitimate Myanmar’s military junta and give unconditional welcome to refugees from Myanmar regardless of the COVID-19 situation.
If Pita takes the helm, he will surely put respect for justice and rule of law, together with the protection and promotion of human rights, at the forefront of Thailand’s foreign policy. On the one hand, thus would be an innovative step which would help boost Thailand’s international presence. The long-cherished Thai approach to safeguarding national interests, famously dubbed “bamboo bending with the wind,” has been acknowledged by foreign policy experts for being too pragmatic. Without a vision or some kind of guiding principles, Thailand can only exert limited influence in a globalized world governed by a rules-based order. Besides, international law serves as a bulletproof vest. One reason why Ukraine has gained massive international support this time around is because Russia’s actions clearly violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. Thailand must uphold these principles, or else Thailand would risk forgoing international protection.
On the other hand, an MFP-led rights-focused foreign policy would most likely put Thailand at odds with authoritarian regimes. As seen through Pita’s recent Russia remark and the MFP’s scrutiny of China, the party shows no restraint in attacking authoritarian states with outsized influence in global affairs. This lack of restraint, as many Thai observers fear, would undermine Thailand’s quest to maintain a balanced position between the two power blocs: liberal powers headed by the United States versus the so-called “authoritarian axis” led by Russia and China.
Pita has insisted that Thailand can voice out its unwavering stance against war and other threats to global peace while refusing to choose sides. This is certainly desirable in theory, but hard to follow in practice. From a realist lens, the world is witnessing a blatant clash of order and, to put it bluntly, whatever Russia and China (or other “axis” countries) pursue will be seen by liberal powers as a threat to the existing rules-based order. More importantly, Russia’s unstoppable attack on Ukraine, the perceived ineffectiveness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, have highlighted the limits of international law and fueled the doctrine of “self-help.” Ultimately, in such an uncertain and polarized strategic environment, the best way to maintain leverage and survive is to refrain from bringing in “unnecessary troubles” and stay out of conflicts.
The desire to remain non-confrontational understandably persists among Thai authorities and politicians from pro- and anti-government camps alike. While Thailand this week voted to support a resolution condemning Russia at the United Nations General Assembly, the Thai Foreign Ministry has avoided mentioning Russia in its official statements. Government officials and politicians have also voiced similar responses when asked about the Ukraine situation, paying more attention to the evacuation of Thai citizens and Thailand’s readiness to combat rising fuel prices. Even Piyabutr Saengkanokkul who is a founding member of the dissolved Future Forward Party, the original form of the MFP, has urged caution in dealing with Russia.
Furthermore, the MFP’s overwhelming emphasis on human rights may hurt Thailand’s pursuit of other national and foreign policy objectives. Take, for example, the recent Thai-Saudi rapprochement. Thai leaders have been trying for decades to restore ties with Saudi Arabia to recover tourism and trade losses, and an opening finally came during the rule of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. If Pita was leading Thailand, would he be willing to mingle with bin Salman, who approved the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?
If elected, Pita would definitely attempt to chart a new course for Thailand’s foreign policy, but he will face serious constraints from Thai elites who still favor incremental changes and a pragmatic approach to international relations to protect Thailand’s interests. The old way has several drawbacks, but for Thai elites, it is the safest way to navigate through turbulent waters.