foreigners

Tongue-Thai'ed - With 'love' from Bangkok to Beijing

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 6, 2015

"If I were a woman I will fall in love with his excellency" - Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimapakorn _____________________________

This is part XXXI of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, ridiculous, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

It is no big secret that ever since Thailand's military seized power in a hostile takeover with the coup of May 2014, the military junta would face big challenges - among them, on the diplomatic world stage. Thailand just narrowly avoided becoming a pariah state among Western countries (we reported) only because it is still a (geo-)strategically important stakeholder in Southeast Asia. But all the rather soft and symbolic sanctions still couldn't avert Bangkok's diplomatic pivot towards Russia and especially towards China.

We reported back in December:

(...) it did not come as a surprise when then-army chief and still-to-this-day-junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha greeted Chinese businessmen as his first guests shortly after the coup of May 22 in an effort to woo investors back to the country and help jump start Thailand’s struggling economy. That was shortly followed by a visit of Thai military commanders to China.

Other bilateral meetings between Prayuth and Chinese leaders took place during the Asia-Europe Meeting in October, where he met China’s premier Li Keqiang and a month later at the APEC Conference hosted in Beijing with president Xi Jingping. The latter would welcomePrayuth again to the Chinese capital last week, where both countries signed a memorandum of understanding to develop and build a “medium-speed” rail network linking the countries.

"Thai junta seeks deeper ‘China pivot’, lauds Beijing’s leadership style", Siam Voices, December 29, 2014

Since then, the Thai military government has made more advances towards Beijing by fulfilling the navy's long-held dream of buying submarines from China worth $1bn - even though the purchase is on hold for now - while around the same time controversially deporting around 100 Uighur muslims to China.

But what's strikes a bigger chord with the Thai generals is China's authoritarian one-party rule in exchange for economic propensity.

So, it came to no surprise when the Thai military's Foreign Minister General Thanasak Patimaprakorn was full of praise for China again, as expressed earlier this week at an ASEAN forum in Kuala Lumpur...

At a joint press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn made a surprise declaration while standing on a podium with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

"If I were a woman I will fall in love with his excellency," he told reporters in English, much to the surprise of China’s top foreign envoy who appeared somewhat unsure how to respond. (...)

"Let’s say we are so close, we are more than friends, just say we are cousins with a long history together," he said.

"We don’t talk diplomatic talk, we talks like personal, like family, like friend," he added.

"Thai junta envoy admits crush on China", AFP, August 5, 2015

Well, that got awkward pretty quickly...

Also, why the need to change gender to express your love? There's no need to be ashamed of expressing one's man crush. And even if the probably biggest one-sided declaration of bromance on the diplomatic stage has been so far not reciprocated, this will most likely not the last we hear of it.

Analysis: US nominates former NKorea envoy as new ambassador to Thailand

Originally published on Siam Voices on April 15, 2015 After half a year of vacancy, the position of US Ambassador to Thailand looks like it will be filled soon. With the nomination of experienced career diplomat Glyn Davies, it offers a glimpse into the future United States' diplomatic relations with Thailand.

In an episode of the American TV drama 'The West Wing', a scene depicts how new ambassadors are welcomed in Washington, D.C.:  "I understand that you're a sports fan?" asks the fictional president Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. "Yes sir, Mr. President. Golf!" replies the fictitious new Thai Ambassador Tada Sumatra (who came up with that name?), both men standing in the president's Oval Office with their respective aides. "Okay, well - golf's not a sport. It's fine, don't get me wrong, but let's not you and I get confused with things that men do," rebuffs the president before proceeding with the acceptance process.

It is doubtful whether such pleasantries will be exchanged during the acceptance of the next US Ambassador to Thailand, because the current relationship between the two countries is less than cordial.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, the Thai military junta has faced a series of condemnations, diplomatic downgrades and some sanctions by Western countries, just stopping short from ostracizing Thailand from the international community amid the risk of driving the still geo-strategically important country into the arms of both China and Russia.

One of the most vocal critics against Thailand's military rulers is the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying shortly after the takeover of power that it would have “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” later emphasized with the US’ suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m – in hindsight more a symbolic slap on the wrist compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself.

Furthermore, amidst calls to either completely cancel or move it to another country in the region, the annual long-running military "Cobra Gold" exercise was scaled down this year while the preparatory meeting for next year's drill have been indefinitely postponed.

Another sign of American discontent with the Thai junta that was widely (and incorrectly) speculated on is the ongoing lack of a US Ambassador in Bangkok. The position has been left vacant since Kristie Kenney left Thailand late last year after a tenure of nearly 3 years, during which, as Siam Voices contributor Daniel Maxwell noted back then, she managed to create a positive image as "a culturally sensitive ambassador" who was popular among a lot of Thais. This has often been attributed to her and her embassy's successful utilization of social media. The Charges d’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy has taken over duties ever since.

The wait for a new Ambassador to Thailand looks to be coming to an end, as US President Barack Obama this week nominated Glyn T. Davies for the post.

Davies is a distinguished career diplomat with 35 years of experience, most notably as US representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the Austrian capital Vienna, and from 2012 to 2014 as Special Representative of the U.S. Secretary of State for North Korea Policy, in which he managed the American position on the controversial nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, respectively. In other words, this man knows a lot about crisis diplomacy.

People close to Davies have apparently good things to say about him, as former IAEA deputy director-general Olli Heinonen said in a 2011 Associated Press report:

“He’s a good communicator and willing to talk to adversaries,” Mr. Heinonen said. “He’s easygoing and fairly low-key but can be tough when he needs to be.”

Others describe Mr. Davies as likable, with a good sense of humor, a consummate networker, extremely committed to U.S. diplomacy but also known to show his frustration if his efforts are not working.

"New U.S. envoy on N. Korea faces tough mission", Associated Press, October 20, 2011

These personal traits should come in handy when Davies is dealing with the Thai military government. Relations between the two countries hit a low point in late January when US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel heavily criticized the authoritarian government during his visit to Thailand, provoking the junta - in a thinly-veiled case of hurt pride - to fiercely rebuke Russel's words, summoning... erm, "inviting" US charge d'affairs Murphy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and causing Prayuth to go on a week-long verbal rampage.

Davies' nomination could also be regarded as a sign that the United States has realized that it will be likely dealing with the military junta for a lot longer than initially anticipated, namely beyond the promised elections sometime in early 2016, while it still isn't known in what capacity the junta will exist after that.

But whether or not Glyn Davies will become the next US Ambassador to Thailand is less up to the Thai government but more dependent on the United States Senate. More specifically, the question is whether the perpetual political gridlock can be somehow resolved, which has caused dozens of nominations for ambassadors to be stuck in political limbo waiting for confirmation, leaving over 50 countries worldwide without an American ambassador.

In other words, it's most likely the political dysfunction in Washington D.C. that will delay the arrival of the next US Ambassador in Bangkok for his acceptance process, complete with handshakes and a little small talk - perhaps about golf?

Russian premier visits Thailand: More rubles rolling into Prayuth's regime?

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 10, 2015

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Thailand this week was a rare and convenient foreign policy opportunity for the junta, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

It’s been a while since the red carpet has been rolled out at Bangkok Government House for a foreign leader who isn’t from an Asian country. That hiatus ended mid-week with the visit of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday.

The timing couldn’t be better for Thailand’s military junta, still yearning for some international recognition. Relations with most Western countries cooled significantly (we reported) after last year's military takeover, led by then-army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has since installed himself as the country's prime minister.

Since the coup, foreign criticism has been met with petulant and indignant rebuttals by the junta - more often than not from Gen. Prayuth himself - as seen with the most recent backlash against the military government’s revoking of martial law and the subsequent invocation of Article 44, which gives junta leader Gen. Prayuth nigh-absolute power.  In the latest development, soldiers have been granted permission to effectively act as law enforcement officials.

So it comes to no surprise that the junta is looking for new (and/or) old friends elsewhere, so far finding them in neighboring Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar), and - more strangely - in North Korea. Most important, though, is Thailand's pivot towards China (we reported). Ties between the two countries - especially between its armies - have strengthened significantly with Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan traveling to Beijing for the second time since the coup this week, not only to deepen ties but also do some window shopping for military equipment.

Back in Bangkok at Medvedev’s visit, things seems to be going smoothly as well.

"When a friend is in trouble, moral support from allies is needed. Russia still chooses to be friends with Thailand today and we will ensure the bond of friendship remains tight," Gen Prayut said. He thanked Mr Medvedev for his understanding about Thai political developments and vowed he would strengthen ties between the two countries. (…)

The two leaders witnessed the signing of 10 MOUs at Government House. Five were signed between state agencies, including energy, tourism, cultural exchange, anti-narcotics and investment.

Thai and Russian private companies signed five MOUs to strengthen cooperation in machinery engineering, navigation technology, rail infrastructure, fibreglass production and educational exchange between Moscow State Regional University and Siam Technology College.

Prayut reaches out to Moscow”, Bangkok Post, April 9, 2015

While Russian-Thai relations go back to when Tsar Nicholas II welcomed King Chulalongkorn in 1897 (more can be read here and here), ties between the two countries have not been a priority for either party over the years, especially because of the Cold War and the United States being Thailand’s long-standing ally. And despite a rather turbulent episode with the extradition of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to the US, which left Russia fuming at the then-administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Russian ruble has been steadily rolling into Thailand since the fall of the Soviet Union.

That is mostly thanks to an influx of Russian tourists and expats, who are now ranked third as the country with the most tourists to Thailand, behind Malaysia and China. However, in 2014 the number has dropped to 1.6m tourists - a decrease of 8.6 per cent (source). But that has less to do with the Thai political crisis and more to do with Russia’s own economic woes and its tumbling ruble (partly as a consequence of international sanctions for its meddling in the Ukrainian conflict). The fall in Russian visitors has had a significant economic impact, especially in the Russian stronghold of Pattaya.

Nevertheless, both countries are optimistic about their economic outlooks, with a bilateral trade volume (officially) estimated at almost $4bn and about many potential lucrative deals: Russia could, as Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters, buy 80,000 tonnes of rubber from Thailand, thus alleviating one of the junta's biggest commodity headaches. Also, the prospect of a Russian-Thai free-trade agreement could fill void left by the suspended talks with the European Union, much to the disappointment of European trade lobbyists in Thailand.

But more importantly, the Russians also have this to offer:

"We are feeling out the interest on the Thai side to purchase military equipment," Russian Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters in Bangkok on Wednesday. "Our friends from the Western part of the world are ignoring Thailand." (...) Talks on defence-related sales were focused on military aircraft and related training and services, Manturov said. He declined to give details of specific deals under discussion.

"Russia eyes military sales to Thailand, rubber deals", Reuters, April 8, 2015

Unlike its direct neighbors, Thailand's Air Force is mostly equipped with American F-16 and Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets. But in the current situation, Russia could bundle an attractive package for the Thai generals, which could also cover their long-held wish for submarines.

It should be by now obvious that a rapprochement between Russia and Thailand could - despite denials by both countries - be of geo-strategic benefit for them, given how the two are internationally spurned (albeit at completely different levels of severity and significance). The Thai military junta could always use a big country at its side for international legitimacy, that is also willing to do business and not ask pesky questions about democracy and human rights, while Russia can continue to develop its trade relations in Southeast Asia.

That said, Western countries won't be giving up on Thailand just yet. Not if if they don't want to leave the playing field to a geo-political rival.

While Thailand is not likely to be welcoming many foreign leaders from the West, the red carpet at Government House may be rolled out for new guests more often - although at what cost?

After martial law in Thailand, there is Article 44 - and a backlash against the junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 2, 2015 The removal of martial law in Thailand has not been met with relief, but with more anxiety and criticism - not only from abroad - amid fears of a descent into a fully-fledged dictatorship under Article 44, which gives the junta near-absolute power.

Television viewers in Thailand saw their regular programs interrupted Wednesday evening for an official statement. First came a statement from the Royal Gazette declaring that King Bhumibol Adulyadej had approved the removal of martial law throughout* the country, effective immediately. This was widely expected, as Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha asked the King for permission earlier this week and it was just a matter of time for it to be granted.

Martial law was declared shortly before Thai military staged a coup almost a year ago on May 22, 2014. It gave the junta far-reaching powers to detain people without charges, send them to military court, ban public rallies and political seminars, and impose stringent media censorship.

"There is no need to use martial law anymore,” said the royal announcement on the evening of April 1. Thankfully it wasn't an April Fool's joke, and what followed instead was no joke either.

On Tuesday before the announcement we already talked about Article 44 of the military-installed interim constitution that will be utilized from now on to "maintain peace and order". The section gives prime minister Gen. Prayuth unprecedented, very far-reaching powers to issue any order to maintain what he thinks is "national security" and "public unity" for an indefinite amount of time with no political or judicial oversight.

The TV announcement Wednesday also included "Order Number 3/2558", issued by Gen. Prayuth as head of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the military junta formally calls itself.

The communique (which can be read in its entirety here and translated into English here) lists 14 regulations which stipulate that every military officer ranked Lieutenant or above is tasked to be a "Peace Keeping Officer” (sic!), authorized to summon and detain suspects without charge for up to seven days, seize and search properties without warrant, ban public gatherings of more than five people, and censor the media, among other actions, without any liability. (A detailed critical analysis can be read here.)

So why has martial law been lifted, when replacing it with Article 44 only strengthens the junta's grip on power? One main reason is that martial law has discouraged a lot of tourists and foreign investment to come to Thailand.

Another argument is that martial law has been one of the main points of contention by foreign governments, as they have repeatedly called for its repeal as a first step back to democratic civilian rule. But as reactions from abroad have shown, nobody’s buying the junta's alternative.

The European Union published a statement saying Wednesday’s orders ”does not bring Thailand closer to [a] democratic and accountable government.” A representative of the U.S. State Department expressed concern ”that moving to a security order (...) will not accomplish any of these objectives," while calling for ”a full restoration of civil liberties in Thailand.”

But the strongest response came from Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who wrote this borderline scathing statement:

Normally I would warmly welcome the lifting of martial law – and indeed strongly advocated for it to be lifted in Thailand, (…) But I am alarmed at the decision to replace martial law with something even more draconian (…) This clearly leaves the door wide open to serious violations of fundamental human rights. I appeal to the Government to ensure that these extraordinary powers, even if provided for by the Interim Constitution, will nevertheless not be exercised imprudently.” (…)

The NCPO Order issued on Wednesday also annihilates freedom of expression.

UN Human Rights Chief alarmed by Thai Government’s adoption of potentially unlimited and “draconian” powers”, United Nations Office High Commissioner for Human Rights, April 2, 2015

This is the second strongly worded statement by the UN this week alone after they criticized Gen. Prayuth's threat to execute reporters critical of the junta.

The Thai military government already anticipated such criticism from abroad, as for instance deputy prime minister Wissanu Kruea-ngam argued that Article 44 is "the best option" to regain international confidence while still maintaining national security. Meanwhile his colleague, deputy prime minister, former army chief and the junta's (nominal) number two General Prawit Wongsuwan lashed out against critics, saying that "no real Thai is afraid of Article 44", but only foreigners. His advisor Panitan Wattanayagorn urged the United Nations' officers to "study the text carefully." Gen. Prayuth himself on the other hand simply shrugged it off when asked by reporters.

One thing is for sure given the reactions: there’s hardly anybody that is being hoodwinked, anybody being bamboozled or anybody being led astray by this nominal change, as many see right through the junta’s gambit - if it ever was supposed to be one.

*Note: Martial law has been in effect in the provinces Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla at the South border since 2004 and is not being affected by the latest or any other previous NCPO order.

Did foreign diplomats really praise Thai junta reforms?

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 21, 2015 The Thai junta's foreign minister claims that his military government is getting more and more approval from the international community. But is there any truth to it?

One of the most difficult challenges for Thailand's military government in its attempts to legitimize last year's coup and the ongoing authoritarian rule is to get any international approval. As we have previously reported before, condemnations from abroad came in quickly after the coup, as did some (in hindsight more symbolical) sanctions by the West. But nothing much has happened since. While diplomatic relations with many countries - especially with the United States and the countries of the European Union - remain cold, any minimal engagement from elsewhere is being warmly received by the junta.

In other words: Anytime a foreign dignitary meets with representatives of the Thai military junta (even if it's just a courtesy handshake), it will be positively spun by the latter as a sign of international approval of the regime. And that's exactly what has happened recently.

The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) published a press release last Thursday about the meeting of four foreign ambassadors with former Supreme Commander and current Thai junta Foreign Minister (as well as one of a few deputy prime ministers) General Thanasak Patimaprakorn.

Here's how the state-owned media organization MCOT repeated rehashed rewrote reported it:

Russian ambassador to Thailand Kirill Barsky said he welcomed the emphasis on reform and was pleased with results of the official visit to Thailand of Russian Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov last Friday. He said that it was agreed to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Thai-Russian diplomatic relations beginning next year. The anniversary falls in 2017. (...)

Paul Robilliard, Australian ambassador, said he followed Thai politics and admired the Thai government for allowing all parties to have their say in national reform. Thailand is at the center of Southeast Asia and his country's most important trading partner. (...)

Gen Tanasak quoted Swiss ambassador Christine Burgener as praising the government for listening to all parties on national reform. She promised that Switzerland was ready to share its experience in election organisation and suppressing corruption with Thailand.

Canadian ambassador Philip Calvert said that Thailand had progressed in its reform as planned in the government's reform roadmap, Gen Tanasak said. Ambassador Calvert hoped Thailand would successfully introduce true democracy.

"Ambassadors praise Thailand for implementing national reform roadmap", MCOT, January 15, 2015

By the looks of it, it all sounds pretty good for the Thai junta and it seems that the four foreign ambassadors are full of praise of the Thai military government's work, right? Well, not quite if you ask the foreign embassies and ambassadors themselves.

Let's start off with the Russian ambassador Kirill Barsky, who supposedly said he "welcomed" the junta's "emphasis on reform," which is not mentioned at all in the press release from the Russian Embassy in Bangkok. While it can be argued that it wasn't important enough to include that in the statement, it seems more oddly baffling that it wasn't even mentioned in the Thai MFA's press release - probably also because it wasn't deemed important enough.

Next is the Australian ambassador Paul Robilliard, who took up the post just in last October, but already allegedly "admires the Thai government for allowing all parties to have their say in national reform," which is far from the truth as we have previously reported that while the military junta claims it would listen to all sides for input, the "reform" process is ultimately an exclusive affair, as it is left in the hands of a few hand-picked men - not to mention that a free press currently doesn't exist and open dissent is not tolerated, an ongoing martial law ensures that.

Asian Correspondent asked Mr. Robilliard on Twitter if he was actually quoted correctly. Here's his reply:

Again, what was emphasized by the Thai MFA is in contrast to the ambassador's words.

And finally*, let's look at Canadian Ambassador Philip Calvert, who pointed us to a statement of the Canadian Embassy on Facebook for comparison:

H.E. Philip Calvert, Ambassador of Canada to the Kingdom of Thailand, met with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tanasak Patimapragorn on January 14, 2015 to discuss the multi-faceted bilateral relationship between Canada and Thailand, recent developments in Thailand and the ASEAN region.

Ambassador Calvert underlined Canada’s expectation that the Thai military return Thailand to civilian and democratic government as soon as possible through free and fair elections, and in accordance with the Roadmap; that the political reform process be transparent and inclusive and that it reflect the will of the majority; and urged Thai authorities to meet Thailand's international human rights obligations.

Facebook post of the Embassy of Canada to Thailand, January 16, 2015

Judging by the contents and the tone, you might get the impression Mr. Calvert attended an entirely different meeting than the Thai Foreign Minister. Granted, the art of international diplomacy is a very delicate one that relies heavily on the choice of words (or in this case entire passages), among other factors.

So far, many Western countries are treating the authoritarian military government with caution, yet maintain some degree of engagement. A diplomatic source told Asian Correspondent last October that while this is the best way to "pressure the government on certain issues," many within the diplomatic community are "aware what impressions this might give."

Indeed, with the junta's almost desperate search for international legitimization in mind (and so far only finding it in countries like Cambodia and Burma - and apparently North Korea) it is grasping for every little straw and is thankful for every photo-op to claim as evidence - regardless of whom they're shaking hands with.

Or how else could Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn make one of the most spectacularly baffling claims by the junta last year, when he said that "out of 6bn people on this world [!], 4.7bn people already support [the junta] 100 per cent" and thus "of all the countries worldwide, 85 per cent are confident [with us]"?!

*Note: Since there was no public statement available at the time of writing, Asian Correspondent has reached out to the Swiss Embassy in Bangkok for one. It has not replied as of now, but we will update this post accordingly.

UPDATE [January 20, 2015]: The Swiss Embassy in Bangkok replied after an inquiry by Asian Correspondent as following:

The Ambassador did underline Switzerland’s readiness to support the Thai authorities on various issues the current government is tackling in the current transition phase, for example on anti-corruption, governance and human rights issues. She encouraged to continue reconciliation efforts in parallel with the reform process and said she was pleased to see that these efforts developed into a more inclusive approach.

Several other issues were discussed where Switzerland stands ready to provide expertise.