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.

The US scales down "Cobra Gold" military exercises in Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 27, 2014

A crucial part in the military junta's desire to win approval from the international community are its current ties to the United States. But the signs between Washington and Bangkok are somewhat ambiguous right now, writes Saksith Saiyasombut.

It was a calm morning on the empty Hat Yao beach near Pattaya overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, but it was clear it wasn't going to stay that way for long. On the horizon, a good dozen amphibious landing vehicles appeared, racing towards the shoreline owned by the Thai Navy. Things were about to get louder and more crowded as the vehicles unloaded several units of United States Marines onto the beach as part of the annual "Cobra Gold", the oldest multinational military exercise in the Asia-Pacific region.

Established in 1982, "Cobra Gold" was initiated to strengthen ties between the United States and their long-term ally Thailand, then under the semi-democratic rule of Prem Tinsulanonda, now the head of the Privy Council. It was the height of the Cold War and there were fears of a communist threat in the region. Over the years, the focus has shifted from fending off hypothetical invasions to multinational humanitarian operations. The exercise also involves other armed forces in the region either as participants or observers, including China and more recently Burma. These annual "war games" drills are seen as an essential pillar of US-Thai relations.

16,000 troops took part in the "Cobra Gold" military exercise in February when Thailand still had an elected, but deeply embattled civilian government. Now, almost half a year after the military coup of May 22 and with the military junta at the helm of the country and its fundamental dismantling of the political system, the question remains whether there will be another "Cobra Gold" in 2015. And what of Thai-US ties?

The United States have warned of “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” and suspended $3.5m of military aid to Thailand in the immediate aftermath of the coup (still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn). There also have been demands that "Cobra Gold" should either be cancelled or moved out of Thailand in order to send a strong signal to the Thai generals. While these demands have been the only direct punishments--if you can call them that--from Washington it was still enough for the Thai junta to appear "unfazed" and offended at the same time.

As mentioned previously on this blog, the military junta is desperately seeking approval from the international community to legitimise their rule. Despite the rather symbolic sanctions and condemnations by the US and the European Union who have suspended an almost-signed agreement on closer economic and political ties, the Thai junta seems to have found new friends in Burma, Cambodia (the former literally welcoming them with open arms) and also in China.

In light of this, what will the US' next response be? It seems like they're actually shaking one of the US-Thai diplomatic pillars:

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok told VOA on Friday the so-called Cobra Gold 2015 exercise set for February will be "refocused and scaled down." The statement said "in light of the current political situation, the U.S. government has increased its focus on non-lethal activities, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."

Thai officials have recently denied that the war games would be affected by the May coup, the military's 12th takeover in 80 years, which has caused a minor rift in U.S.-Thai relations. Supreme Commander General Worapong Sanga-net said this week that 2015 was long ago set as the year for "light military exercises." He said the 2016 version will be designated as "heavy, and prove the exercises have not been affected by the coup." For his part, Worapong said the reduced U.S. participation was not an indictment of the military takeover.

"US Scales Back 'Cobra Gold' War Games in Thailand", Voice of America, October 24, 2014

The US is also reported to have cancelled a “large-scale live fire exercise tied to a planned amphibious landing,” similar to the one described in the introduction.

As evident in the comments of Supreme Commander General Worapong Sanga-net above, one key element of selling their view of international relations to the public is copious amount of spin, literally bending and distorting the truth. This was evident in the vastly different accounts of a meeting between Thai junta prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha and Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe by their respective news agencies.

Whether Thais fully believe them or not, the junta is eager to pose with foreign dignitaries and maintain a level of involvement on the international stage - such as forums such as the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan earlier this month - in order to show that there is business as usual in Thailand. It seems that normalizing ties to the military government is the pragmatic way to go for many foreign diplomats, since they believe they can better influence the junta that way.

With US Ambassador Kristie Kenney leaving Thailand at the end of this month (and her successor yet to be determined), the United States should take a hard look at the current situation and think about the long-term consequences of a change in their relations to Thailand. A stance that is too tough could drive Thailand into the arms of China while being too soft could be seen as an endorsement of the junta. But any response should demonstrate that things in Thailand are far from normal and the general's words about when they  may return to normal should not be trusted.

Thai junta leader in Europe 'to collect stamps of approval'

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 16, 2014 Thailand's prime minister and military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at Malpensa Airport in Milan, where he will be attending the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting on October 16-17, marking his first visit to Europe since taking over powers in a military coup in May 2014. (Pic: Facebook/Wassana Nanuam)

Thai junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha will meet leaders of the European Union for the first time since the military coup this week in a self-proclaimed mission to help Western leaders "understand" the political situation in Thailand. But there is no guarantee that it is going to work, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

One of the many life lessons one will learn is that you simply can't win over everyone. That's something that Thailand's military government seems to be struggling to cope with, especially when it comes to foreign policy towards the West. Observing the reaction from Thai prime minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha and members of his cabinet shows a curious split in narrative wobbling back and forth between desperately seeking approval and snide dismissal when it comes with dealing criticism abroad.

In the immediate aftermath of the military of coup in May 2014, many countries around the world (to varying degrees) expressed their "grave concerns" about the worst-case scenario. Some condemned the hostile takeover of power and others also added a demand for a "rapid" or "immediate" return to democratic principles and elections.

Western countries reacted initially the harshest at the sight of Thailand's second coup d'etat in eight years: United States Secretary of State John Kerry said that the coup would have "negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military." This was emphasized with the US' suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m - which is a drop in the ocean compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself for next year's budget. The European Union (EU) seemingly went slightly further, stopping all visits to Thailand and suspending the signing of an agreement on closer economic and political ties - an apparent downgrade in EU-Thai relations.

The Thai junta, seemingly offended and also appearing unfazed at the same time, has turned to other countries in the region by seeking closer ties to China, as evident in the approval of a $23bn train network connecting the two countries. But the Thai junta's China pivot could turn out to be a zero-sum game in the long-term. Neighboring countries like Burma and Cambodia have welcomed the Thai generals (literally!) with open arms and gave their blessings to the junta as well, which should alarm ASEAN despite their long-held tradition of non-intervention.

It was evident that the Thai junta and the military government (which is essentially one and the same) had an unsurmountable uphill task to convince the international community that their (vague, but yet so clear) intentions to "reform" the political system are sincerely for a return "swift" return to "true democracy" with elections held sometime in late 2015 - which may or may not be postponed further back into 2016, depending on whether or not their "reform" plans actually stick.

The hardest part still remains the Western head of states and diplomats. The appointment of recently retired supreme commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn as foreign minister - much to the chagrin of several diplomats - certainly didn't help to raise the diplomatic credibility of the military government either.

His first big mission was at the United Nation General Assembly in New York last month, where General Thanasak was spouting the usual claims by the Thai junta that it is "not retreating from democracy," but that the military intervention was "necessary" amidst the deteriorating political conflict (while absolutely disregarding the manufactured nature of the anti-government protests that made the coup possible in the first place!).

Now his boss has boarded the plane and after making his first visit as Thai junta prime minister to neighboring Burma, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is visiting Europe this week. More specifically, he is attending the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting in the northern Italian city of Milan on Thursday and Friday.

This marks a curious turn of events after the (in hindsight rather soft) sanctions and nearly universal condemnation from the West as General Prayuth will be meeting EU leadership with Herman Van Rompuy, recently elected President of the European Council, and EU Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso, as well as heads of states from both Europe and Asia.

The main goal of this trip is clear: thaw frozen Thai-EU relationships and get back to business - literally! Thailand is poised to position itself in a leading role in ASEAN and being the EU-ASEAN coordinator in July 2015 certainly helps - especially with the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community looming around the corner.

But is normalizing relations with a Thai military government that is anything but democratic the right way to go?

"The reason why we're seeking to engage [with the junta] is that this is the best way to get our points across," a source within the diplomatic community in Bangkok told Asian Correspondent. "We have ways to pressure them on certain issues. However, we are aware what impression this might give to the public."

Indeed, the problem is that any engagements by foreign envoys with the junta could appear to give them legitimacy.

"Prayuth is coming here to collect his stamps of approval," said Junya Yimprasert, an exiled Thai political activist, at a panel this past weekend at the Asia-Europe Peoples' Forum (AEPF) in Milan*. Junya, who is organizing a protest of General Prayuth's presence at ASEM on Thursday (which the Thai Foreign Ministry has anticipated), has called for ASEM not to let the Thai junta prime minister take part, which was echoed in the final declaration of the AEPF (PDF).

As Prayuth will be attending ASEM and meeting the same European leaders that have condemned him months ago, he will still have a tough time to convince everybody that it's time to get back to normal (and it might take even longer, according to his own words).

Since he launched the military coup, assumed absolute power and sat about completely overhauling the political system, things in Thailand are far from being normal. You don't have to be a foreign diplomat to figure that out. This time, Prayuth won't be able to convince everybody.

*(Disclaimer: This author was one of the panelists at the Asia-Europe Peoples' Forum at the invitation of the Asienhaus Foundation.)

Thai PM apologizes for 'bikini' remark after Koh Tao murders

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 18, 2014 Following widespread outrage and condemnation after his flippant remark in the aftermath of the murder of two British tourists on the southern Thai island of Koh Tao, Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister Gerneral Prayuth Chan-ocha has apologized for suggesting that the behavior of the victims is to be blamed for the crime and tourists wearing bikinis are more vulnerable to attacks.

"I am sorry that my statement caused uneasiness. I affirm that I did not look down on or criticise anyone. I simply wanted to warn them to be careful at certain places and certain times," Prayuth said.

"Prayuth issues apology over bikini remark", The Nation, September 18, 2014

As we reported yesterday, Gen. Prayuth rhetorically asked during a televised speech if tourists "can be safe when they wear their bikinis," which was then followed by a flippant "unless they're not beautiful!"

The remark was quickly picked up by the international (and mostly only by the international initially) press and has sparked criticism and condemnation, especially by the UK press - the country of the two murder victims - as exemplified by the front page of Thursday's The Daily Mail accusing Gen. Prayuth of "insulting" and "smearing the murdered Britons".

Some readers have been asking about the complete context of his remark. Here's a clip of yesterday's speech that includes his controversial remark:



[Starting at 0.09 min.] "! We always have problems with that! We have to see it with their eyes: They think that our country is beautiful and safe and can do whatever they want, wear bikinis and go anywhere...I ask you: will they make it through [as in "be safe"] wearing a bikini? Unless you're aren't pretty. [laughter] Everyone here is pretty! Well, it's dangerous and we have to tell them that! [We have to tell them] two things: [that we have] the law to protect them and that they have to be careful, that after [September] 18 they shouldn't go there [but] we have security there and there looking after...because that negatively affects the tourism Koh...which is it...Koh Chang? What island is it again? Ah, Koh Tao! Yeah, that's [???]. No tourists coming because they're afraid. [...]"

While it's pretty clear that he's focussing on tourist safety and that he's concerned about the negative effects it will have, the flippant remark meant as a half-baked joke is still inappropriate at best. Paired with his comments earlier this week asking to "look into the behavior of the other side" (meaning the victims) and his overall tendency to run  his mouth, one can think that Gen. Prayuth is (unwittingly) blaming the victims. (Note: also, doesn't it come across as a bit rude that he so nonchalantly forgot where the crime took place?).

Nevertheless, this is a lesson for the outgoing army chief, junta leader and prime minister that he is now under much, much more public scrutiny now that he has took (over) this position and that he has to choose his words more carefully.

So, now that we've cleared this we can move on, right?

Translation: "Prayuth insists that he didn't mean to offend. Tone [of remark] only because he wanted to remind to be careful, as there are many unregistered migrant workers there."

Oh boy...!

Thai PM after Koh Tao murders: 'Can tourists be safe in bikinis?'

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 17, 2014 The murder of two British tourists on the southern Thai island of Koh Tao has raised questions about tourist safety in Thailand. Hannah Witheridge (23) and David Miller (24) were found dead on Monday morning half-naked and with severe wounds to their heads. Local police initially (without any substantial evidence) suspected migrant workers on the island of the crime, before turning their attention to a British backpacker, who was a roommate of one of the victims and another British man, who has been asked not to leave Thailand before the investigation is complete.

The murder case is another setback for Thailand's struggling tourism industry, which is facing declining numbers this year due to prolonged political protests that set the stage for Thailand's military to launch a coup in May 22. One of the military junta's initial goals is to kickstart Thailand's tourism industry again and make the country attractive for visitors again.

Thus, it was critical that the Thai military government's of outgoing army chief, junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, reacted to this murder case with the appropriate sensitivity in order to show the world how serious his administration taking this bloody crime.

Unfortunately though, it didn't quite turn out that way...

"There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also the army chief, told government officials. But "can they be safe in bikinis... unless they are not beautiful?" he said, addressing the issue of tourist safety in a speech broadcast live on television.

"Thai PM questions if 'tourists in bikinis' safe after murders", AFP, September 17, 2014

For those unfamiliar with Gen. Prayuth, he has a long record of running his mouth before the coup (see one example here) and even more so since the hostile takeover of power a couple of months ago (another example here) and spearheading nearly everything politically for the foreseeable future. His remarks often range somewhere between "father-knows-all" during his weekly TV addresses and deeply annoyed and sardonic during press briefings.

Thus the latest flippant remarks about tourists' safety correlating to beach attire appears to be brash, and for many even misogynistic that's hinting at victim blaming. According to a tweet by Bangkok Post military correspondent Wassana Nanuam, it appears that Prayuth's rhetorical question was half-baked at best before steering away and saying: "Everyone in this room is beautiful!"

Translation: PM worries about tourists, orders them to be looked after. "In Thailand, can they wear their bikinis? Unless they're not beautiful," making sweet eyes before teasing [the crowd], "Everyone in this room is beautiful!" 

A day earlier in his initial reaction to the Koh Tao murders, Gen. Prayuth said this, again unwittingly suggesting bit of victim blaming:

"I have been following this matter very closely," Gen. Prayuth told reporters as he arrived at Government House this morning. "We also have to look into the behavior of the other side [the tourists]. (...) This case should not have happened in Thailand at all. I think it will affect foreign opinion of our country."

"PM Tells Police To Hasten Investigation of Koh Tao Murder", Khaosod English, September 16, 2014

Indeed it will affect the foreign perception of Thailand as a tourist destination and its safety during a visit. But what also affects this is how sensitively locals and officials are handling this murder case. A half-thought flippant remark by the junta leader and prime minister - who by the way hasn't expressed his condolences to the victims' relatives either - doesn't help to improve Thailand's image.

UPDATE: The British UK tabloid The Mirror reports:

Hannah Witheridge's local MP has responded to comments made by Thailand's prime minister in which he appeared to criticise the behaviour of the two tourists.

MP Brandon Lewis told the Daily Express: “I have not seen anything indicating any blame on the victims. I hope the focus will be on bringing whoever committed this barbaric crime to justice.”

Mr Lewis's comments come after Thailand's prime minister said: "We have to look into the behaviour of the other party (Miss Witheridge and Mr Miller) too".

"British backpackers murdered in Thailand: Updates as police hunt for killer", The Mirror, September 17, 2014

UPDATE 2: Unsurprisingly, the UK press has jumped onto Prayuth's ill-advised quipped as it's being reported and criticized by several outlets, including Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Guardian, The Independent and the Huffington Post UK.

How (not) to protest at the US Embassy, according to the Thai junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 10, 2014 We recently mentioned the foreign reactions (and sanctions) of the international community in the aftermath of the military coup in Thailand, and the reaction of the Thai military junta. The junta's response was somewhere between indifference towards the Western condemnation and longing for approval, even by Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia, its historically frowned-upon and not-so-democratic neighbors.

One of the countries that's in the focus when it comes to reactions to incidents and events happening elsewhere in the world is obviously the United States, a long-time ally with bilateral relations going back as far as the early 19th century.

The US have downgraded its military relations with their Thai counterpart by suspending military aid worth $4.7m (a drop in the ocean compared to the total Thai military budget estimated at $5.4bn) and cancelling several joint-exercises, though a decision to relocate the long-running regional and multi-national military exercise Cobra Gold has not been made yet. Also, a senior US official told a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. in late June that military rule in Thailand will stay "longer than expected" and has expressed his skepticism towards the sincerity of the junta's reconciliation efforts.

Obviously these sanctions have caused pro-coup Thais to lash out against the US, basically telling them to keep out of Thailand's business while repeatedly banging the "foreigners don't understand Thailand" drum - but that's another story. Naturally, the Embassy of the United States was also targeted by protests from both anti- and pro-coup protesters, despite a ban of political gatherings by the military junta.

The lone protester, Thep Vetchavisit, said he was there to voice his anger towards the US government for downgrading its military relations with Thailand in response to last month's military coup d'etat. Mr. Thep arrived at the US Embassy on motorcycle and presented caricatures of former American presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon to the embassy officials. He spent the next ten minutes posing for photos in front of a crowd of reporters outside the embassy.

"America, don't poke your nose into Thailand's [internal] issues," Mr. Thep told reporters. "We have been living for many years peacefully. When the Thais started to fight and kill each other, the soldiers intervened to maintain peace, so that Thais won't kill each other."

Mr. Thep said the American authorities should learn a lesson from Iraq, "which is now a mess," and refrain from interfering with Thai politics any further.

-"Police Say Anti-American Protest Not Violation of Martial Law", Khaosod English, June 29, 2014

Despite an apparently emotional anti-American and pro-coup protest, the local authorities saw nothing wrong with that:

Pol.Maj.Gen. Amnuay, the deputy chief of Bangkok police, said Mr. Thep's outbursts against the US government did not count as a protest.

"No chaotic incidents happened. There was only a gesture of anger about America’s interfering in Thailand's internal affairs, and a demand for the Americans to stop such behaviour," Pol.Maj.Gen. Amnuay said to reporters after Mr. Thep left the scene. "This man's actions do not count as a violation of the legal ban on political protests, because it was merely an expression of anger."

-"Police Say Anti-American Protest Not Violation of Martial Law", Khaosod English, June 29, 2014

So, then it's okay to protest at the US Embassy, right...?

Deputy National Police Chief Somyot Phumphanmuang is to summon the student activists who ate “anti-coup sandwiches” in front of the US Embassy on Tuesday, and send them to the military for “attitude adjustment,” Naewna has reported.

Half a dozen student activists from the Thai Student Centre for Democracy gathered in front of the United States Embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday morning to “test the standards of the authorities,” after a lone anti-American, pro-coup demonstrator held a solo protest in front of the US Embassy on Sunday but was not arrested.

The students were able to carry out the activity for around 15 minutes, then they dispersed without getting arrested.

-"Police to summon ‘sandwich protest’ student activists for attitude adjustment", Prachatai English, July 1, 2014

Hm ok, but what about just congratulating the United States on their national holiday...?

Thai police arrested and charged a woman protester for showing support for the US in front of the US Embassy in Bangkok on 4 July, Independence Day.

The police charged Chaowanat Musikabhumi, aka “Nong,” with defying the coup makers’ order banning political assemblies. She is now detained at the Crime Suppressiong Division.

When she was interrogated by the military and security officers at the Thai Army Club, the military officers told her that by holding a placard reading “Long Live USA Day,” she may have violated Article 112 of the Criminal Code or the lèse majesté law that the placard deemed a parody of “Long Live the King.”

She tried to explain that the phrase “long live” is not only used for blessing a monarch as in the Thai phrase Song Phra Charoen, but can be used in many contexts. She added that she was just aimed at showing appreciation for the long-life US democracy.

-"Protester may face lèse majesté for holding “Long Live USA” placard on July 4th", Prachatai English, July 8, 2014

It is evident that publicly reading "1984", eating sandwiches and showing the three-finger salute as a form of protest are absolutely verboten because of their suspected anti-coup sentiments, and even go so far to monopolize the phrase "Long Live" and twist it into a lèse majesté case, while it is absolutely legal to protest at the United States and its embassy (at best even alone) to effectively tell them to keep out of Thailand's business, no matter how lopsided or broken its politics currently are.

Some protests are apparently indeed more equal than others.

[UPDATE, July 11] The "Long Live USA"-protester who was threatened with lèse majesté-charges has been released with no charges on Friday, Prachatai reports. But as with many other previous detainees, she has to sign an agreement that she will not engage in any "political activities" anymore.