Sunday, February 14, 2010

Thailand searches for new paradigms


ONLY LESS THAN TWO MONTHS into his second year, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is demonstrating an independent and firm mind, handling both domestic and foreign policy issues very much to the chagrin of his counterparts. For those who have known him since he was a political novice nearly two decades ago, it is vintage Abhisit.

Exhibit one: reforming the police. He ordered further investigation into police corruption and bribery related to the Second Police Region's recent reshuffle based on various complaints - a common practice throughout every district and level in the past. As chair of the Police Selection Commission, he has turned the police department upside down, opening Pandora's boxes since last year. In private, he said he wanted to bring into the open the once secretive selection process of the police top dogs. Everybody sighed, knowing it would be an impossible task, but he is doing it anyway at great risk.

After the row over the new police chief seemed to drag on, political pundits and columnists predicted his demise. Jaws dropped when the details were linked to a powerful figure supporting a certain name. But that did not deter Abhisit from what he had in mind, cleaning up the police and instituting much needed reform. His lifeline is hanging on a thread. After all, no Thai politicians wanted to mess with the police - who have a long history of cooperation and confrontation with the power wielders. Police leaders invent/ cum/destroy evidence or perform any dirty jobs necessary to sway or twist public opinion through their manipulations. But from now on, the khaki top brass are in for a roller-coaster ride as they try to figure out what is up Abhisit's sleeve.

Exhibit two: the online lotto scandal. Abhisit opposed the controversial project on moral grounds. Loxley GTech Technology won the concession but was not impressive and acted very aggressively earlier, threatening to sue the government if the online scheme was cancelled. Loxley is quite a powerful company and has influence among all the top echelons within the Thai establishment. With the prime minister's insistence, things got to unravel over the past several weeks - but for the better.

Loxley's initial strong reaction could have scared off senior officials with predictable diatribes along with media spin. The prime minister did not budge. He has no interest other than to serve the public. Within the next few weeks, there would be a settlement satisfactory to all parties' interests and concerns.

Exhibit three: community-building among the poor dwellers in rural and urban areas. This is by far the most difficult problem of the Abhisit government. A huge budget of six billion baht has been allocated to provide incentives, including land-sharing schemes among the urban poor so they can form self sufficient communities. This is part of the new social safety net. So far, Abhisit has been quite successful in bringing all parties concerned into consultation and reaching common decisions. Often times, officials, especially from the notorious Land Department, were inclined to intimidate the poor. Abhisit's presence served as a facilitator- sometimes he acted as a bouncer - to ensure that both sides reached negotiated settlements.

Often times, conflict within Thai society was rooted in a lack of communication and persuasion. It is no longer a zero-sum game, it can be a win-win situation when all stakeholders sit down and lay down their position. True, Abhisit's power is limited, he cannot do lots of things but he does have the power of persuasion to ensure that all concerned departments and citizens receive fair treatment. If such a norm can be established it will transform Thailand.

Exhibit four: the Hmong repatriation and its consequences. The international community was flabbergasted with the Thai action when the 3,000 Hmong were repatriated. The US and leading Western countries, as well as UN and humanitarian organisations, took Thailand to task for what they labelled as an involuntary repatriation. For the Thai government, it was a long-term commitment that Bangkok had to fulfil once and for all after nearly three-decades of foot dragging.

Abhisit's firm action, albeit despite repeated protests from the West, drew flack from around the world, especially the US lawmakers threatening to retaliate against Thailand. For the first time, Thailand was willing to stand up for its neighbour Laos and honoured Vientiane's words. So far so good, as the criticism against Thailand has somewhat subsided. But uncertainty still reigns about the Thai attitude towards the repatriation of Karen refugees. The government has said it would not send them back. That much is clear as of now. Indeed, the Hmong repatriation has already created a permanent scare in foreign government perceptions that Thailand can say no and initiate its own independent policies and decisions.

Exhibit five: Thailand's foreign policy direction. Former deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai commented last week on wide-ranging issues on Thai diplomacy. On Thai-Chinese relations, he reiterated they were no longer so special, granted their past intimate ties. He was right. Indeed it was also true for Thai-US relations as well. Born in 1964, Abhisit is a quintessential internationalist, who likes Newcastle, not the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is no fan of gu-zheng either.

Unlike his predecessors - such as Chuan Leekpai, Banharn Silapa-archa, Thaksin Shinwatra, and so on - he did not grow up in a combined Sino or American environment. His first foreign outing at the World Economic Forum in January last year should give strong clues that Abhisit was a europhile at heart who valued independence, multilateral cooperation and governance. Obviously, he prefers a balanced and multipolar world. That is why he is now bringing his overseas reputation and creditability to the home front, boosting confidence among his own countrymen.
Exhibit six: new foreign policy approaches. Abhisit will spend this year consolidating the Thai brand and confidence overseas. He has many foreign trips planned, including a visit to Australia and New Zealand in mid-March, then to India, followed by Russia, sandwiched between short visits to the Middle East. Later in the year, European and US official visits are in the pipeline. His world views would be put into practice, focusing on three priorities. First of all, Thailand would increase its strategic value with key major powers through more assertive and independent diplomacy and action. Secondly, it would focus on Asean and the effort to build regional architectures, which must be open and inclusive. Finally, he would explore new avenues for stronger economic and trade ties with Africa and Latin America. By Kavi Chongkittavorn for The Nation, Bangkok

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