Lessons from Thai votes on Jerusalem

Lessons from Thai votes on Jerusalem

Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, seen here at a Mekong meeting in China on Dec 15, ordered the Thai delegation at the United Nations to vote against the United States on the Jerusalem issue. (Photo courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, seen here at a Mekong meeting in China on Dec 15, ordered the Thai delegation at the United Nations to vote against the United States on the Jerusalem issue. (Photo courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Thailand made a historic decision on 21 Dec to join 127 other United Nations member states in rejecting the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. In the past, when push came to shove in a major diplomatic decision, Bangkok would normally duck the issue by practising "fence-sitting" to protect its perceived national interests.

However, this time around, Thailand did not hesitate to vote against the US on the resolution introduced by Turkey and Yemen on Jerusalem's status. What's happening?

One week before the vote was scheduled at the UN General Assembly, senior Thai Foreign Ministry officials held a brainstorming session concerning the scenarios for Jerusalem's future after US President Donald Trump decided to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Dec 6.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Then, at a subsequent briefing of the National Legislative Assembly's Committee for Foreign Affairs, the Foreign Ministry was asked pointedly to adopt a clear position on this issue without opting for non-participation or abstention, as the country used to do. The status of Jerusalem was an emergency session, and it would be a roll call vote and recorded.

Earlier, throughout the weeks prior to the vote, Thailand had to respond to numerous diplomatic inquiries about its position on Jerusalem's status and the Palestinian peace process, given fears Thailand would veer away from the international consensus.

At the time, the Foreign Ministry had not yet determined the country's position, and views were divided into two camps. One group advocated taking a safe route by supporting the statement of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties on the basis of the relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.

Therefore, the concerns of both Israel and the Palestinians must be taken into consideration. Taking this position, it would be sufficient for Thailand to express full support for Mr Guterres' efforts to support the return of Palestine and Israel to meaningful negotiations in order to realise the vision of a lasting peace for both peoples.

The other group wanted a clearer stand. Thailand would express deep concern about the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Bangkok believed that Mr Trump's decision not only risked altering the future status of Jerusalem, which should be decided through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but also hampered progress toward a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict and the question of Palestine.

Like most UN members, Thailand reaffirmed its support for a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living alongside each other in peace and security in line with relevant UN Security Council resolutions and international laws.

As predicted, on Dec 10, Thailand decided not to risk offending the US and Israel by picking the safe route and agreeing with Mr Guterres' statement.

Both the US and Israel hoped that among Asean countries, Thailand would be absent during the upcoming voting on Jerusalem's status. However, there was a sudden mood change after the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley threatened to cut foreign assistance to countries that voted against the US, as well as US contributions to the UN. Thailand no longer receives substantial foreign assistance from the US as in the past.

Thailand, which recently normalised ties with the US, felt Washington was acting like a bully this time -- something it could not condone. It is notable that at certain times, when the country has been pushed to choose sides, Bangkok would vote opposite to Washington's wishes.

Thailand also learned a few lessons from the past. When Thailand decided to recognise the state of Palestine in 2013 during the vote in the UN, it acted too slowly, and several Arab states expressed frustration with Bangkok's ambivalence, which affected their overall attitude towards Thailand, in particular its troubled southern provinces.

The overall record of Thailand's voting on various UN resolutions in the past three decades reveals the country's diplomatic posture that went along with the international consensus. Although there are no statistics to indicate how many times Thailand went against the US or its sponsored proposals, an unofficial estimate puts it at above 10%.

Last year when Thailand served as chair of the Group of 77, a coalition of developing countries at the UN, it was clear that the country was ready to take bolder foreign policy decisions that would align it with other developing countries.

In the beginning, Bangkok wanted to build networks of developing countries that would support its candidacy as a non-permanent member of UN Security Council. As it turns out, Thailand has benefited greatly, forging new ties with developing countries, which have changed Thailand's diplomatic outlook and confidence in taking a higher foreign policy profile.

Bangkok can become a champion of South-South developmental cooperation as well as strengthening its international role, especially in sustainable development.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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