Foreign Relations: Regionalism as an Essential Mechanism

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Foreign Relations: Regionalism as an Essential Mechanism


In general, the Thai voting public are not interested in foreign relations, nor do they regard themselves as being affected by foreign policy decisions. The current economic crisis has made the public more aware of the role of international financial institutions in their daily lives. Unpleasant activities from Myanmar's dissidents in Thailand are other events that may stir their interest in foreign affairs from time to time. However, foreign relations are still perceived by the majority of Thais as an élite task that is far beyond the understanding of laymen. Foreign policy was not an issue in the 2001 general election.

The Chuan government was fortunate to have Dr Surin Pitsuwan and M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra as, respectively, the minister and the deputy minister of foreign affairs. Prior to entering the political arena, both had accumulated respect as outstanding academics in the field of international relations. They both have extensive networks with regional and international élites and institutions. With the application of theory to practice, both of them have given Thai diplomacy a high reputation. As a Muslim, Surin was able to pursue a close link with Islamic countries. Both Surin and Sukhumbhand have successfully implemented a proactive approach to ASEAN and to co-operation with the international community. Thailand played a leading role in establishing the agendas for both conventional and human security in the Southeast Asian region through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM), as well as other venues. Thailand joined the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), assuming the deputy command under Australia, in order to keep the regional peace and security, and in respect of the non-intervention principle. Thailand continues to stand by the enlargement of ASEAN membership, especially the controversial acceptance of Myanmar as a member, and will continue its efforts to urge political change in Myanmar. Moreover, Thailand contributed its effort to co-ordinate the ASEAN-Europe Ministerial Meeting (ASEM) held in Vientiene in late November 2000. This meeting had been postponed for more than two years because of the European Union's displeasure with Myanmar's dictatorial military regime, which engages in massive forced labour and generally has a dismal human rights record. In order to prevent the spillover of domestic conflict from neighbouring countries (especially from Myanmar with which Thailand shares its longest border), Surin had proposed a "flexible engagement" policy several years earlier. This was designed to allow for greater discussion of transnational issues in ASEAN. …

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