Thai Diplomacy under a Dictatorship

As Thailand gears up for a general election scheduled between Feb. 24 and the end of May next year that many rights organizations are complaining could be rigged to keep the current military regime in power, the question of having foreign observers has often been raised.

For many developing countries, the presence of such international observers is always welcome as it would give more legitimacy and credibility to the elections. Not so in Thailand under the junta. The Thai foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, has announced that having foreign observers would be undignified and therefore Thailand doesn’t need them. The reason given: “Thailand is not a problematic country.” Does this mean that the countries that host foreign election observers are all problematic countries?

Foreign minister Don seems to be the epitome of Sir Henry Wotton’s observation in the House of Commons in the mid- 17th Century that a diplomat was an honest gentleman who lied for the good of his country. Wotton didn’t foresee that 21st century dictatorial regimes would employ such types of diplomats to camouflage the repugnant nature of the dictatorship.

In many respects, Don’s undisguised deference to the current Thai dictatorship is somewhat reminiscent of the late Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz’s litany of lies about glorious victories over the American-led troops until the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein came crashing down.

Perhaps Thailand was not a problematic country until he let out that gaffe. He also asserted that it would be ‘inauspicious’ to have foreign election observers. Apparently, he thinks that having foreign election observers is like subjecting Thailand to Nuremberg-style trials and therefore inauspicious for those who breach universally accepted norms and democratic principles.

Even in a country whose information sources are as tightly buttoned down as they are in Thailand, his refusal to countenance foreign observers in an election of doubtful provenance in the first place is raising public questions and calling into question the very quality of the foreign ministry.

For more than a decade, Thailand has not had a foreign minister of calibre or with character and aura worthy of respect on an international stage. Foreign ministers that served under autocratic or undemocratic governments were too busy in their diplomatic campaigns to convince the international community of the legitimacy of their governments rather than putting their ability and experience for a higher cause.

However, even when Thailand did have democratically elected governments, the latter did not take full advantage of their hard-earned legitimacy to raise the profile of the country befitting its economic and geopolitical status. Foreign ministers ranged from mediocre to downright inept. They lacked the attributes, let alone the aura, to inspire their fellow colleagues on the world stage. Some were culturally and intellectually illiterate and became misfits in social and diplomatic circuits. Much worse, some could not communicate coherently in English and were, therefore, an embarrassment to the country.

The general election scheduled for early next year, if it is to be held at all, and if the conditions are not rigged, will be a contest between political parties that advocate democracy and those that favor the continuation of the current authoritarian regime, played out under a military-crafted constitution and rules of the game. If the latter prevails, the military junta would have succeeded in legitimizing authoritarianism and extending its stranglehold on power for the foreseeable future. Thus, the need for foreign observers regardless of foreign minister Don’s protestations.

With more legitimacy and acceptability in the world stage, the job of a post-election foreign minister might be much easier as the issue of legitimacy can be put to rest while he or she can devote more time in dealing with other pertinent issues that have direct bearing on the country and the Thai people.

The American ambassador to Thailand once voiced his concern for the blatant violations of human rights being perpetrated under the purview of the Thai junta based on documented accounts of the violations of freedom, liberty, and fundamental rights of the Thai people by state authorities. An account of the junta’s arbitrary measures to quell dissidents has also been taken up by the UN, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), and a host of human rights groups who have been even more vocal in their condemnation of the junta.

In the face of indisputable evidence on human rights abuses, the Thai foreign minister conveniently stuck to Sir Henry’s old-school diplomacy, flatly seeking to refute the American ambassador for his supposed lack of factual information and chiding him for not abiding by diplomatic etiquette.

It is one thing to be overly effusive in extolling the virtues of the military coup and the government in which he serves, but another to articulate statements that are enormously at variance with the irrefutable facts in an international arena where the fragility of defence of the junta becomes a liability and the subject of ridicule. The Thai foreign minister seems to have zero tolerance for criticisms levelled at the junta, whether they come from his own people or from foreigners. He easily becomes unhinged when the military government receives a bad rap from foreign media or denunciations from human rights groups.

Such behavior is certainly not the attribute of a good diplomat for which truthfulness, subtlety, sensitivity, and prudence are paramount. Although the minister acknowledges that the current government arose from a military coup that toppled a democratically elected government, he contends that the coup that landed him this job is different from other coups. His contention is tantamount to the justification of the use of extra-constitutional means to attain power which is in contravention to the international norms that he is supposed to uphold.

Is he actually saying that all the past coups in Thailand, 17 in all, are illegitimate, except the last coup in 2014 that installed him as foreign minister? For the record, the current military government has exercised more arbitrary power than any other military governments in the past. For this reason, the foreign ministry has been too preoccupied with fabricating the military government’s good image abroad rather than performing its more substantive functions.

Should this be the job of the ‘propaganda ministry’ rather than the foreign ministry? Perhaps a name change is in order. Or should the new name be the Ministry of Covert Operations Overseas for its zealous execution in tracking down Thai dissidents and political opponents abroad?