Monday, 1 August 2011

New minister must put the country first

Our next foreign minister must be free of party and personal agendas

It used to be called a "Grade C" ministry over a decade ago because no political party really wanted it, due to its small budget when compared to other ministries such as Interior or Agriculture.

But as Thailand and Asean shifted gear in the international forum, trying to move its diplomacy up a notch, the ministry became a more attractive place.

During Thaksin Shinawatra's first term in office, some bigwigs in the Thak Rak Thai Party membership were squabbling over it. But in the end Thaksin gave it to Surakiart Sathirathai, a legal academic who would use the ministry to enhance Thaksin and Thailand's international standing. What was good for Thaksin was good for the country - at least that was the impression generated by the TRT foreign policy camp.

Four years later, Surakiart was kicked upstairs to the post of deputy prime minister. Replacing him was Kantathi Suphamongkhon, one of the founders of the Thai Rak Thai Party. His problem was that he couldn't get out of Surakiart's shadow. Part of the reason was that Surakiart wouldn't let him.

To make matters worse, Kantathi had to make this journey in the hope of getting Surakiart elected to the UN top post, which eventually went to South Korea's Ban Ki-moon. Of course, the whole idea was to satisfy Thaksin's quirky ambition to be respected internationally. Anybody remember the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, or ACD? It sometimes appeared in Asean communiques, probably out of sympathy for the long hours that Thai diplomats put into making this forum, which everybody knew would never amount to much from the beginning.

Unfortunately, Thaksin didn't understand that an international forum doesn't make a man. There is no shortcut to international stardom. He went even further by nominating Surakiart to be the UN secretary-general to replace the outgoing Kofi Annan.

But then there was the famous telex from the then Thai ambassador to Washington, Kasit Piromya. He basically told Thaksin that Surakiart, in the eyes of US President George W Bush was not a "brand name" and that he was "unmarketable" in the areas of human rights, democracy and leadership. Being one of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, the US had veto power over the post.

Kasit eventually became Thai Foreign Minister under the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration and he made it his top priority to chase down Thaksin, now a fugitive on the run and looking for sympathy from the global community.

But what goes around tends to come around. Kasit made enemies out of Thaksin's supporters when he went on the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) stage and condemned Thaksin's governance, and called the fugitive premier's friend, Cambodian PM Hun Sen, a thug, for scolding Bangkok and dictating terms to Thailand on border security.

Hun Sen hit back and troops from the two countries clashed along the border on several occasions.

But as the Foreign Ministry graduated from grade "C" to a "class A" ministry, government after government used this ministry to enhance their name and political agenda. It never really occurred to them that what's good for their party agenda may not necessarily be good for the country.

This point was clearly demonstrated during the Thaksin administration. The Democrats also paid the price for appointing outspoken Kasit to the Foreign Ministry post as Thai-Cambodian relations took a nosedive. Hun Sen never forgave him.

Bad taste and the wrong choice of words may not be a crime - but they aren't diplomatic.

Time for a wise choice

The incoming foreign minister will face a number of difficult challenges, including whether to comply with an order by the International Court of Justice to withdraw troops from the court imposed "demilitarised zone" at the border adjacent to the ancient Hindu temple of Preah Vihear.

Can the Pheu Thai government convince the Army to go along after they repeatedly said no to the idea of foreign intervention? Surely Thaksin's camp wants to be on good terms with the country's top brass. However, it's one thing to be on good terms, but it's entirely another to let the military dictate foreign policy for the government. Let's hope the incoming administration headed by Yingluck, Thaksin's little sister, has more guts than the previous government in putting the Army in its proper place.

Let's also hope that the incoming administration and foreign minister understand that national interest is not necessarily the interest of the party and its heavyweights.

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