Whatever the Outcome of Its Election, Thailand’s Foreign Policy Needs a Reset

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Whatever the Outcome of Its Election, Thailand’s Foreign Policy Needs a Reset

Since the 2014 coup, the country’s international activities have been conservative and narrowly conceived.

Whatever the Outcome of Its Election, Thailand’s Foreign Policy Needs a Reset

In this photo provided by Thailand’s Ministry of Defense taken during the third week of Dec. 2021, Thai soldiers receive Myanmar villagers arriving in Thailand after fleeing clashes between Myanmar troops and an ethnic Karen rebel group in Mae Sot, Tak province, northern Thailand.

Credit: Thailand Ministry of Defense via AP

Thailand is scheduled to hold a general election on May 14. At least 70 political parties will take part and are busy campaigning across the country. The major political parties have all focused on pocket-book issues such as increasing the minimum wage, promoting social welfare for senior citizens, reforming the education and healthcare systems, and promoting small and medium enterprises. Only a few parties, however, have highlighted foreign policy.

During a recent interview with the Standard, Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader and prime ministerial candidate of the Move Forward Party, pointed out that “international relations was less about choosing sides than choosing principle” because “the new world order is no world order.” Pita explicitly “promised to move fundamental rights to the front of Thailand’s foreign policy.” Meanwhile, Srettha Thavisin, the real estate tycoon turned politician who is one of the two prime ministerial candidates of the Pheu Thai Party, is committed to traveling abroad more to attract more foreign investment. His foreign policy will focus on pursuing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the European Union in order better to compete with Indonesia and Vietnam, attracting agricultural technology from New Zealand, and expanding the markets for Thai products in the Middle East and Africa. However, neither Pita’s general focus on rights nor Srettha’s pragmatic and specific manifesto, reveals a clear vision for Thai foreign policy.

Since the military coup in May 2014 that ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has used substantial resources in defending the image of the Thai junta that ruled until 2019 rather than protecting and advancing Thailand’s national interests on the global stage. Over the last eight years, the ministry under the premiership of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha has made several critical diplomatic mistakes at both regional and international levels.

Among the most glaring are concerns about events next door in Myanmar. In the wake of the military coup there in February 2021, thousands of Myanmar refugees, including human rights activists, political activists, and independent journalists, have fled political harassment and persecution and resettled in the refugee camps dotted along the border inside Thailand. In response to the ongoing violence committed by the Myanmar junta, the United Nations has called on Thailand, particularly the Thai military. which has a very close and long-standing relationship with the Myanmar military to terminate the violence and all forms of harassment. Unfortunately, Thailand has made very little effort to help. Instead of providing humanitarian assistance, such as food, water, and medicine, “The Thai soldiers come here sometimes, but mainly to tell us that we are not allowed to go up to the village,” Ayenwin Oo, a Myanmar refugee, told Al Jazeera.

In addition to not providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees, some Thai army units stationed along the Thai-Myanmar border have reportedly assisted with logistical supplies for the Myanmar military. In March 2021, Transborder News, a local media outlet focusing on border and ethnic minority affairs, reported that the Thai military provided 700 sacks of rice to the Tatmadaw, whose logistics channel was cut off after engaging in fierce fighting with the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic minority resistance group operating in the area. Prayut denied any involvement of the Thai military.

However, as the fighting between the Tatmadaw and the KNU intensified in June 2022, a MiG-29 fighter jet of the Myanmar air force intruded about 4 or 5 kilometers into Thai airspace to pursue the resistance forces. Air Vice Marshal Prapas Sonjaidee, a spokesman for the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF), acknowledged the RTAF radar unit spotted an unidentified aircraft flying into Thai airspace. The RTAF, however, did not scramble its F-16 fighter jets to intercept and force the Myanmar MiG-29 to reverse its course. Surprisingly, Prayut downplayed the situation, describing it as “no big deal.” It seems that Thailand has turned a blind eye to the ongoing violence and crimes committed by the Myanmar military – even within its own sovereign territory.

To make matters worse, some of the refugees and independent journalists who fled the war zones were captured and forced to return to Myanmar. On March 23 of this year, Thai security forces raided and arrested no less than 108 anti-junta Myanmar activists hiding along the Thai-Myanmar border in Mae Sot district of Tak province. The Thai police, according to a statement from the human rights group Amnesty International, had a list of names, positions, and photos of the targeted people shared by the Myanmar military.

Thailand’s recent foreign policy failures have not stopped at the regional crisis. On January 3, 2020, the U.S. military assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Soleimani was accused of masterminding Iran’s overseas terror activities. In a sudden and unexpected way, Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai claimed he was informed by the U.S. military ahead of the drone strike, presumably to boost the image of his own importance. Don’s groundless statement subsequently came under fire, and on March 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was forced to issue a statement saying, “the report was misinformed.”

Similarly, in mid-October 2022, Thailand surprised the international community by abstaining from a vote at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Thailand was seemingly prioritizing its diplomatic and economic relationship with Russia over the reinforcement of universal values and international laws. Thailand’s abstention in the UNGA vote on Russia’s invasion was nothing but indirect encouragement for Russia to intensify its military offensive at the high costs of Ukrainian civilian lives and international order. As Desmond Tutu, a former South African human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, argued, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” What did Thailand get in exchange from Russia? On the same day after the UNGA had passed its solution, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed he would attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November in Thailand. Putin, however, ended up skipping APEC.

Most recent surveys indicate that Thailand’s opposition parties are maintaining a healthy lead in the run-up to the election, yet due to the peculiarities of the country’s electoral system, it remains unclear which party will be able to form the next government. One thing that is clear is that the new government will inherit the current administration’s foreign policy disarray. Resetting Thailand’s foreign policy should therefore be one of the most urgent priorities of the new prime minister. There is no way Thailand can restore its diplomatic reputation in the international community if it keeps on turning its back on universal values and the defense of the rules-based order.