Diplomacy under Siege: Thailand's Political Crisis and the Impact on Foreign Policy

By Chachavalpongpun, Pavin | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Diplomacy under Siege: Thailand's Political Crisis and the Impact on Foreign Policy


Chachavalpongpun, Pavin, Contemporary Southeast Asia


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.

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