Politics is toxic for diplomacy

Thoughtful people will agree with former foreign minister Kasit Piromya about some of his recent claims about relations with Cambodia. Harsh words have been exchanged recently over Thai diplomacy with our neighbour to the east. Mr Kasit said he had done his best when he was foreign minister to help two Thais who were arrested and jailed on espionage charges. His statements ring true. The problem is that so many Thais, including Mr Kasit, have made bilateral relations into a bitter political issue.

Mr Kasit, a career diplomat, served as foreign minister under prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, from late 2008 to mid-2011 when Yingluck Shinawatra became premier. This was a period of crisis in relations with Cambodia. Mr Kasit was often at the centre of the controversies. There was actual warfare on several occasions, with loss of life.

Diplomacy was poisoned even before his appointment. Mr Kasit, as a fervent supporter of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and its yellow-shirt mobs, had infamously attacked Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in a widely circulated video, calling him a "thug". Hun Sen made it clear he didn't like Mr Kasit or Mr Abhisit, and unprofessionally made the dispute a part of his foreign policy.

When the ultra-nationalists Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Pipattanapaiboon were arrested in December, 2010, Hun Sen made it obvious he intended harsh punishment. Both were sentenced to eight years in prison on the questionable charge of espionage. Mr Kasit, both as foreign minister and as a personal supporter of Veera's anti-Cambodia Thai Patriots Network, probably did his best to have the pair released.

Charges that he did not do his best were predictable, including insinuations by Ms Ratree after her release.

In fact, Mr Kasit is politically besieged. On the one side are the self-styled "patriots", instigating protests and even calling for attacks on Cambodia over the matter of the Preah Vihear temple and other imagined issues. On the other are those who favour international law and a rational, diplomatic approach to the Cambodian government and people who do not trust Mr Kasit to support this. His advocacy for the PAD and for Veera's self-styled patriotism is a heavy burden.

This is symptomatic of where extreme nationalism has taken the country. Along the Thai border, ultra-nationalists claim that one can only show love for Thailand and its institutions by attacking Cambodia. They are wrong. Millions of Thais and Cambodians alike deeply love their nations, and also protect the borders without the need for warfare.

Mr Kasit was a diplomat who also became a political name during the yellow-shirt rallies. He made the error of combining these two, bringing his politics into his job as foreign minister. It was an extreme case that so well illustrates the politicisation of Thai-Cambodian relations.

All Thais including Mr Kasit should be speaking with one voice on international disputes. But they should be speaking rationally. The so-called "patriots" calling for the rejection of international law and violence against Cambodia are the problem, not the solution. Reasonable people know Mr Kasit tried to represent Thailand as best he could when he was foreign minister. They also know that bringing pure politics into international diplomacy is fraught with danger.