Book Review: Thaksin and Thailand's Contentious Foreign Policy

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's drastic remaking of Thailand's economy and society didn't just stop at the country's borders. Almost as soon as he took office in 2001, he set out to drastically remake the country's foreign policy as well, seeking to alter Thailand's famed "bamboo diplomacy" to mould himself into Southeast Asia's newest regional leader in the footsteps of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad.

"Thaksin aspired to transform Thailand into a regional player. To be able to accomplish his goal, he crafted an active foreign policy," writes Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat who is currently a Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Program at the ASEAN Studies Center, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Pavin is the author of the heavily footnoted and scholarly Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and his Foreign Policy. Thaksin, Pavin writes, "pushed the envelope by binding tightly the country's foreign policy with his domestic populist programs."

The ousted premier's intention to use foreign relations to score political points at home became the driving force for the announcement of a new direction in foreign policy, seeking to make Bangkok a regional center of gravity for mainland Southeast Asia. But as with his domestic policy, Thaksin‘s rise posted a serious threat to the traditional foreign policy elite that had guided policy for generations, and as the domestic establishment did, they sought to cast him out.

A telling episode, the foreword by the UK-based scholar Duncan McCargo, for instance, recounts a famous World War II episode in which the Phibun Songkhram government formed an alliance with Japan and declared war on the United States. However, Seni Pramoj, then the ambassador to Washington, failed to deliver the declaration. When the allies emerged victorious, Thailand claimed its "Free Thai" resistance movement represented the country's real stance. Thus, McCargo writes, "Thailand succeeded in being on both sides during World War II, a rare feat of foreign policy flexibility" and an example of the bamboo diplomacy that allowed policy to bend with the wind.

That was hardly Thaksin's aim. His ambition to reassign Thailand as a "regional hegemon" got assistance from foreign powers, particularly a United States eager to tolerate the prime minister's increasingly autocratic ways in its search for allies to combat what the George W Bush administration called the "global war on terror." Thaksin was very much the globalization advocate, arguing that Thailand had to be prepared for the shifting environment in four areas – the free flow of people and labor, trade and services, investment, and information and technology, and that "the roles of ambassadors and consuls-general were to maintain and expand Thailand's export markets."

In particular, Thaksin reversed policy and steered Bangkok close to the despotic regime in Burma. He also turned Thai foreign policy towards both China and India, both of which proffered wider policy options for Thailand, a recognition that political and international realities were turning away from the west.

Pavin opens the book with 12 pages of pictures illustrating just how much Thaksin appeared overseas – hugging Hun Sen of Cambodia, knee to knee with Lee Kuan Yew, shaking the hand of then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others. "Thaksin's bold foreign policy agendas, his innovative vision of the world, his reasonable English, prompted him to flaunt his ambition to become the region's next leader." Thaksin had taken power as an unabashed business leader with the ambition to bring business principles to governing.

With the old guard going into retirement – Kuan Yew in Singapore, Mahathir in Malaysia, Suharto falling from power in Indonesia – Thaksin began to look like the next architect of a dynamic, emerging Southeast Asia, no matter how much the hackles were rising on the back of the necks of both his domestic and foreign policy establishment in Thailand. Unfortunately, it began to appear that his business interests, with the sale of his Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek sovereign wealth fund, and his machinations with providing communications infrastructure to the Burmese, were paramount, and they played a major role in providing the excuse for his ouster.

His ambitions were famously cut short on Sept. 19, 2006, when Thailand's military, backed by royalist factions, removed him from power while he was on an overseas trip and instigate nearly four years of chaos that only ended in May when the Bangkok elite appeared to have finally settled all of the scores and took over. And how that the dust apparently has finally settled, with the elite firmly back in charge, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrat Party having put down the Red Shirt insurrection, what did Thaksin leave behind him?

"Abhisit has reinstated Asean as the cornerstone of Thai foreign policy," Pavin writes. "Democracy and respect of human rights, long-claimed trademarks of the Democrat Party, feature prominently in Abhisit's foreign policy." Abhisit, Pavin continues, also learned from Thaksin's mistakes, "especially in turning foreign policy into a machine that promoted private interests, and in making an unrealistic and unsustainable foreign policy that focused solely on Thai domination."

Thailand's relationships with its next-door neighbor Cambodia continue to suffer and in fact have been exacerbated by events over the intervening years since Thaksin's ouster, particularly over the Preah Vihear temple, in which Thai nationalists sought to inflame nationalistic sentiment for domestic political reasons. Thaksin, of course, has remained close to Cambodian leader Hun Sen, to Bangkok's outrage.

Thailand's foreign ministry, Pavin writes, "has undoubtedly fallen into the pit of political conflict. The current political situation sees two main opposing political factions, one that supports Thaksin and the other that, to a certain extent, represents the Bangkok elite, exploiting the ministry and using it as a tool to put their political messages across." As a result, "the foreign ministry has been dragged into a seemingly endless, vicious political game that has tainted its reputation deeply and diminished its relative independence in the conduct of diplomacy."

The power struggle of 2001 in the ministry, Pavin, writes, "brought about so many promises in regard to the making of a better and more powerful Thailand in the eyes of outsiders."

Pavin's verdict in the end is that the flaws imbued in Thaksin's foreign policy proved that his vision of foreign affairs was troublesome. The engine that drove his ambitions occasionally sputtered, thus diminishing the credibility of Thailand's diplomacy."

Nor are things likely to get better very soon. As with his domestic policy, that is the sad legacy of a prime minister who sought to grow too big, too powerful, too fast, and the sun melted the wax on his wings. It has been a long and painful fall and, if Pavin is right, it isn't over yet.