Friday, January 11, 2008

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In spite of no new policy initiatives, the military-installed government has laid a strong foreign-affairs platform for the new government, outgoing Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram said last week.

Published on January 2, 2008

"Unlike an elected government in a normal situation, we have not had the luxury of conducting foreign policy normally as at least 30 per cent of our time is taken up with correcting past events," Nitya said when asked to evaluate the government's foreign-policy achievements.

It was not what former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra did during his five years in power that led to him being deposed which affected the Foreign Ministry. Rather, it was the consequences of the military coup that toppled Thaksin that took up the ministry's time in order to correct the international perception of the Kingdom.

Strong reaction against the coup came from all directions, not only from Western countries who champion democracy, but also regional neighbours who had connections with Thaksin.

The United States imposed Article 508 of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programmes Appropriations Act against the coup. The European Union (EU) announced a directive to limit contact with the junta-installed government.

"Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and I expended a lot of energy trying to get these countries to be more flexible towards our nation for the benefit of the economy as well as international recognition and confidence," Nitya said.

The efforts yielded good results as investment from them as shown by the Board of Investment's figures remained high, he said. The US maintained the annual Cobra Gold military manoeuvres and France, one of the EU's founding members, dispatched Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to visit Thailand in October.

Despite being ousted, Thaksin never allowed smooth sailing for the government. He employed every means at his disposal to rock Surayud's boat. He hired international lobbyists and public relations firms to attack the government and polished his own image as a democratic leader who was toppled in an undemocratic way.

Things were made more difficult for Nitya when Thaksin met Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar early in 2007, resulting in sour relations between Thailand and the city-state, which had signed a huge business contract with Thaksin.

The former PM sold all his stake in Shin Corp to Singapore's investment fund Temasek Holdings, which included the transfer to Temasek of communication satellites regarded by the military as national assets.

Many coup supporters demanded that Thaksin's diplomatic passport be revoked by the Foreign Ministry to make it more difficult for him to travel.

Nitya spent three months considering the case, as it was unprecedented in Thai history to revoke a former leader's diplomatic passport. He eventually did so on grounds that Thaksin had been charged with criminal offences.

However, it would not be appropriate to compare Thailand's foreign relations during the Surayud government's term with that of Anand Panyarachun's government, which was also installed by a coup, because Anand did not have to deal with a case involving someone like Thaksin.

Anand had a free hand in conducting foreign policy as the late Chatichai Choonhavan, who was toppled by a coup in 1991, did not meddle in politics afterwards.

"[The then] prime minister Anand and his foreign minister did not have to waste time with what we have had to face," Nitya said.

Anand's government took a leading role in forming the Asean Free Trade Agreement without facing questions of legitimacy as Surayud's military-installed administration has.

This has led to a lack of confidence by Surayud's government in forming new foreign-policy initiatives. It was unable to react quickly to the bloody crackdown on street protests in neighbouring Burma until Asean under Singaporean chairmanship took a tough stance.

Nitya's policy towards neighbouring countries was to follow Thaksin's frameworks but he has made it clear that he would not allow personal interests to be involved.

The outgoing foreign minister said he had no suggestions for the next government, but hoped that new foreign policies would be formed for the benefit of the entire nation rather than for personal benefit.

Supalak G Khundee

The Nation

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