Opinion: Pheu Thai’s cabinet reshuffle could undermine Thai foreign policy.

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Former Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-nukara publicly expressed that his departure was primarily due to the removal of his deputy prime minister position by Srettha Thavisin, his superior. He stressed that this prevented him from attaining the same level of status as some of his predecessors, who had enjoyed greater autonomy. However, many political observers in Thailand, both insightful professionals and newcomers, believe that his sudden exit from the cabinet was partially related to this claim. Previous foreign ministers, such as Surin Pitsuwan, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the renowned Thanat Khoman, effectively fulfilled their roles without holding the position he whiningly requested. That likely narrows down the answer to a mere internal party politics.

Pheu Thai stands out as a prominent political entity with transparent ownership structures, yet this openness does not shield it from internal divisions akin to the longstanding factionalism seen within America’s Republican and Democrat parties over the decades. To grasp the dynamics within the Pheu Thai Party, one must first recognize that Parnpree aligns with the Chan Song La faction linked to Thaksin’s ex-wife Potjaman Damaphong, while current PM Srettha Thavisin is associated with the Yothin Pattana faction tied to former PM Yingluck Shinawatra. Despite both factions being part of the same political lineage, they each seek their own sphere of influence within Thai political theatre. 

The issue arose when the Yothin Pattana faction exerted excessive influence by appointing Jakkapong Sangmanee, a close confidante of the Prime Minister, as deputy to shadow Parnpree in the foreign office the past year. This move, aimed at curbing the former foreign minister’s authority, was further underscored by the composition of the recent special working group on the Myanmar crisis. Notably, the group comprised high-level security officials who opted to bypass Parnpree, reporting directly to the Prime Minister instead. These actions effectively curtailed Parnpree’s impact, culminating in his decision to voluntarily step back from the realm of political powerplay following the latest cabinet reshuffle.

One cannot reasonably anticipate meritocracy from the Pheu Thai Party, as its owner, Thaksin, has a penchant for bestowing ministerial posts upon his trusted capos and those who have dutifully supported his agendas. And presently, one of the party’s primary objectives is likely to facilitate the return of his beloved sister, former PM Yingluck Shinawatra, to Thailand in the coming year, much like Thaksin’s own homecoming. To ensure the success of this notorious endeavour, Thaksin requires someone even closer to him than before, and crucially, the new replacement must adhere to the party’s established hierarchical practices. It is under these circumstances that the name of veteran diplomat Maris Sangiampongsa, who was once akin to Thaksin’s personal foreign secretary, has risen to the top of the list. 

Certainly, a mere shuffle of foreign minister in Thailand is unlikely to trigger seismic shifts in its enduring foreign policy stance or any overarching strategy, if it still truly exists. The nation’s foreign policy direction is intricately woven from the fabric of its core leadership. In contemporary times, diplomats and foreign ministers do not solely craft and mould foreign policy; their roles are more entrenched in its execution, mirroring global practices observed in the United Kingdom, China, Russia, Taiwan, Singapore, and even the United States. Thailand, with its enduring oligarchic political milieu, finds itself in familiar company with these nations. In practice, Parnpree’s role is thus to translate the policy blueprint formulated by the party establishment into tangible action. Thailand’s postures towards international tourism, OECD accession, Myanmar, US coalitions, and the Global South are therefore likely to remain intact, regardless of who is in charge at the foreign ministry.

Yet, the current administration must bear in mind the primary consequence stemming from the latest reshuffle – the damage inflicted upon Thailand’s international standing. This tarnished reputation is the result of a sluggish economy, entrenched political divisions, and the all-too-familiar occurrence of a coup d’état roughly once a decade. Thailand’s aspirations to become the fifth Asian tiger, a grandiose “Thailand Dream” vision, have regrettably fallen short. The Southeast Asian nation has only recently secured its first civilian-led government after nearly a full decade under military rule. This had offered a glimmer of hope that Thailand could be perceived as a responsible member of the rules-based international order. However, as lamented by a career diplomat from one of Thailand’s ASEAN counterparts, a significant obstacle impeding Thailand’s emergence as a regional power remains the issue of political stability.

When referring to “stability,” it does not simply allude to the absence of internal strife or public unrest. Rather, it signifies a government’s ability to complete an uninterrupted full four-year term, a rarity since the transformative era of the 1930s. The primary advantage that emerging economies in the Global South, such as China, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and the aspiring fifth tiger, Thailand, can offer foreign investors is not merely inexpensive labor or market access through Free Trade Agreements. Instead, it is the assurance of a stable environment where multinational corporations feel secure from the capriciousness of host governments. This factor significantly influences the decisions of foreign factories to relocate, with many opting for the stability provided by countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, or the financial hub of Singapore.

It’s not just businesses seeking stability from the government; a range of critical issues, from the Myanmar civil conflict to the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the Israel-Hamas conflict, as well as regional matters within ASEAN, all require a consistent approach in foreign policy. This continuity was disrupted by the sudden change in leadership at the foreign office. For Thailand’s honorary counterparts, establishing new business relationships with the new appointee would be a tiresome exercise, particularly when foreign visitors are already grappling with identifying the appropriate contacts amidst the current political complexity. With Thailand concurrently navigating three prime ministers – the former PM, his daughter, and his sister’s crony – each with distinct roles, the situation adds further confusion to an already intricate political landscape.

The recent developments in Thailand’s foreign policy have the potential to irreparably damage its international reputation, transforming it from a business-focused approach to a special interest-driven one. This shift is likely to be met with skepticism by Thailand’s foreign counterparts, who may view the country’s efforts as a political charade. Meanwhile, Indonesia and Vietnam, Thailand’s key competitors in the region, have been actively working to enhance their international credibility and strategic interests, with the goal of becoming leaders in ASEAN. The contrast between their proactive approach and Thailand’s self-destructive efforts to secure the return of former PM Yingluck is likely to be met with derision from Jakarta and Hanoi, who may view Bangkok’s actions as a comical display of political ineptitude.

Within this trajectory, Bangkok faces the potential for a decline in international credibility, with perceptions of self-serving governance overshadowing efforts to elevate Thailand to the status of Asia’s fifth tiger. There is a looming risk of regressing into a decade marked by passive diplomacy, where Thailand’s role stagnates as a passive player, lacking the initiative to engage proactively on the global stage. Instead, it may find itself relegated to a mere pawn, waiting to be maneuvered by larger powers in the complex geopolitical arena. To compete with and potentially surpass the likes of Indonesia, Vietnam, and even Singapore, Thailand must urgently reassess its approach to domestic governance, as this directly impacts and undermines its long-term foreign policy objectives.

Written by PridThakur


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