Diplomacy under siege: Thailand's political crisis and the impact on foreign policy.

AuthorChachavalpongpun, Pavin

Thailand's protracted political crisis has had a severely negative impact on the conduct of the country's foreign affairs. Since elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed from power in a military coup in September 2006, the country has arguably been without a foreign policy. On the surface, it may seem easy to conclude that the lack of foreign policy direction was simply because Thai politicians were too preoccupied with fighting for their own political survival, and as a result had little capital to expend on diplomacy. The Thai Foreign Ministry, too, has been tasked with the urgent mission of reconstructing the good image of the country, and has therefore been deprived of time and resources to plan long-term strategic policy. In any case this assignment has proved to be extremely arduous. Thailand's reputation was further tarnished with the seizure of Bangkok's two airports by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in December 2008, and, in April 2009, the cancellation of the Pattaya Summit and violent demonstrations in Bangkok. (2) This political stalemate has effectively held Thailand's foreign affairs hostage. It has also damaged the country's credibility as Chair of the ASEAN Standing Committee. The picture of a country wracked by instability and bereft of foreign policy stands in stark contrast with the image of Thailand under Thaksin. During his rule from 2001-06, Thaksin claimed that he had elevated Thai international standing to a new height through his grandiose foreign policy initiatives such as the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) and the Ayeyawaddy-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), which helped transform Thailand from a midrange power into one of Southeast Asia's major players. (3) Once Thaksin was ousted, his ambitious foreign policy was abandoned. Thai diplomacy become the victim of political conflict and has been left rudderless.

In the field of International Relations, the literature on the domestic sources of foreign policy is voluminous and has undergone several cycles of refinement. The present state of Thai diplomacy showcases the latest refinement in the domestic-foreign linkage a la Thailand. The political wrangling between opposing factions has continued to dictate the fate of the country's foreign policy. The conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over disputed land adjacent to the Preah Vihear Temple illustrates the operation of "linkage politics". (4) Local politics has actively shaped the way bilateral relations have been conducted. This article first seeks to elaborate the linkage between domestic politics and foreign relations and the vital role of regime types in foreign policy-making. Whereas the post-coup military government of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont defined foreign policy closely with the notion of national security, successive Thaksin-backed governments resurrected the business-oriented policy, particularly towards Thailand's immediate neighbours. As is reflected in their outlook on external relations and political activities, these competing groups clearly endorse different approaches in foreign affairs, with the pro-Thaksin forces loosely identified with both "populist" and commercial foreign policy, and the royalist-bureaucratic group presented as somehow "ethical" and "nationalist" (5). Despite the differences in foreign policy viewpoints, political players share one common practice and goal: exploiting foreign relations to fulfil their political purposes which are not necessarily in the interests of the nation. In this process, they have incessantly sought to hegemonize their views on foreign policy, and ultimately, turn it into a self-legitimizing mechanism. The present government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, like its predecessors, attempts to deligitimize past foreign policy so as to reconstruct its own legitimacy and strengthen its mandate to rule. Meanwhile, political opposition groups have adopted the same tactic to demoralize the ruling regime and utilized foreign policy as a powerful political weapon to achieve similar purposes.

The article then moves on to examine the interactions between state and non-state actors and the implications for foreign policy. In the post-Thaksin period, it is evident that the realm of foreign affairs has been dominated by multiple actors who aggressively contest each other to protect their own interests. The emergence of non-state actors, including the PAD and the red-shirted protesters under the guise of the National United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), has seriously challenged the state's authority in the foreign policy decision-making process.

Comprehending linkage politics and the important role of non-state actors enables the analysis of certain diplomatic behaviour. Moreover, it helps identify the root causes of bilateral tensions between Thailand and some of its neighbours. The period under examination in this study begins with Thaksin's ouster in September 2006 and ends with the present government of Prime Minister Abhisit. During this period, domestic political agendas and calculated tactics by various political actors have, to varying degrees, moulded and prescribed the content of the country's foreign policy, contributing to feelings of mistrust between Thailand and its neighbours.

Overlapping Domestic-Foreign Frontiers

More than in any other period in Thai history, the linkage between domestic and foreign policy realms in contemporary Thailand is central to understanding the country's policy towards the outside world. It is significant because current political conditions have opened up space for a dramatic increase in Thai political actors who cross the domestic boundary into the unfamiliar domain of foreign affairs and use external issues as a political weapon to eliminate their rivals. Moreover, a profoundly polarized Thailand has transformed the political arena into a battlefield of competing legitimacies among various factions. In their competition to enhance their legitimacy, old and new elites have accused each other of indulging in illegitimate or immoral foreign policy practices.

The Thaksin period was the most unique, colourful and controversial in Thailand's recent history. It was a period in which the Thai body politic, once solidly dominated by the Bangkok elites with strong support from elements of the military, business communities and the palace, was "privatized" by "Chief Executive Officer" Prime Minister Thaksin. (6) The fear among the Bangkok elite that they would lose power, wealth and influence provoked a large-scale political campaign against Thaksin. The Prime Minister, however, was never a passive player. Ousted by the military in 2006, he has since fought back aggressively, defying the power of traditional institutions, including the palace, through the work of his political proxies. Duncan McCargo argues that Thai politics is best understood in terms of political networks, and he describes the leading network from 1973 to 2001 as "Network Monarchy". (7) Thaksin was determined to displace Network Monarchy with one of his own. The two networks represent opposing contenders bent on weakening their opponent by delegitimizing the other's domestic and foreign policies, their ideologies and their political campaigns.

When Thaksin was in power, he personalized and centralized foreign policy to match the needs of his domestic constituencies. His main objective was to utilize foreign policy to shore up his populist programmes, burnish his international credentials and expand his business empire. His personal agenda became the national agenda, one which gave birth to Thaksin's "populist diplomacy". (8) Thaksin endorsed a mercantilist foreign policy, buttressed by new economic policies which directly benefited listed firms with close connections to him and his cabinet members including tax privileges, deduction of concession fees, the creation of entry barriers for business rivals and the promotion of other policies of benefit to the Thaksin business network. (9) Furthermore, Thaksin's company, Shin Corporation, invested heavily in, and even monopolized, the lucrative telecommunications sector, including in neighbouring countries. Thaksin's foreign policy was unsurprisingly tainted by conflicts of interest involving the corporate concerns of his own family. It also revealed the exploitative nature of Thailand's foreign policy towards its less developed neighbours. Hence, as the military was scheming to overthrow the Thaksin government, it attacked his foreign policy, citing a massive public outcry over widening allegations of corruption, abuse of power, malfeasance and cronyism. In particular, the coup-makers cited the tax-flee sale of Shin Corporation shares to Singapore's Temasek Holdings as evidence of Thaksin's corrupt foreign policy. (10)

The Ethical Junta (October 2006-January 2007)

The conflict between Thaksin and the military was deeply rooted in the struggle for power underway in Thai domestic politics. Having won two landslide elections and representing the new voice of Thais in marginalized regions, Thaksin effectively emerged as a serious threat to traditional power-holders. The military coup was staged purposefully to eliminate Thaksin as a threat and safeguard the interests of traditional elites. Yet, the political drama generated a huge impact on the country's foreign policy. Thaksin might have departed the political scene, but he continued to exert an enormous influence. The Surayud government tried unremittingly to delegitimize Thaksin's legacy in foreign policy in order to justify the coup. Moreover, in condemning Thaksin's foreign policy as fraudulent and corrupt, the military was able to re-emphasize its role as the self-proclaimed guarantor of political stability and righteousness. The mandate of the military, as it claimed, was to cleanse the dirt in Thai politics caused by Thaksin and his...

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