Thailand must take stand on Ukraine
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Thailand must take stand on Ukraine

A local Thai joins Ukrainians in Bangkok in protesting against the war in Ukraine on March 5. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)
A local Thai joins Ukrainians in Bangkok in protesting against the war in Ukraine on March 5. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

A superior military power invades a weaker neighbour, violating the United Nations Charter. Thailand takes a stand against this act of naked aggression and rallies the international community, finally pressuring the occupying force to withdraw.

Could such a thing really happen?

It could and did. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, Thailand led diplomatic efforts to dislodge the occupiers, working through Asean and the United Nations to uphold international law.

Today, the former adversaries have become partners. Yet Thailand's diplomacy has become a shadow of its former self.

Case in point: Its official position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which appears on the Foreign Ministry's website, is a terse two lines of text conspicuous for its brevity and lack of substance.

The reason? ThaiPBS's Quote of the Week from Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai: "For some issues, we need to allow time for them to run their course. There is no need to rush into playing a role. We have a lot of issues to tackle. This is only one issue on the (international) platform. There are several players who stand to benefit from it."

Such indifference to a crisis of such proportions raises troubling questions. Was it because the government did not wish to offend Russia, a country with ties dating back to tsarist times and a major source of tourists to Thailand? Or does the government believe there is nothing to be gained from taking sides on such a distant dispute?

None of the possible answers puts Thailand in a positive light.

To be sure, the invasion of Ukraine does not pose an immediate threat to Thailand's security. It does pose, however, an affront to the values and principles Thailand has long professed to hold dear. In more concrete terms, it is already triggering massive economic sanctions that will send shockwaves, such as higher energy prices, rippling throughout the world.

Not taking a stand in the face of such an egregious and impactful violation of the United Nations Charter only makes our fine words of support for international law over the years ring hollow.

Foreign policymaking can be a process of cold calculation. But there are times when simple decency counts for more. In April 1986, Thailand, as a member of the UN Security Council, voted against the United States' bombing of Libya. In his explanation of the vote, the Thai Permanent Representative to the United Nations, ML Bhirabhongse Kasemsri, said that he did so "with a heavy heart". Although this decision angered the Americans, it sent a message that Thailand would put principle above all else to ensure the sanctity of international law. It was also a message Washington understood immediately: "when our interests coincide, we act in concert; when they differ, we act independently".

Thailand's failure to champion international law would signal something else entirely: that we lack faith in the very institutions designed to protect countries like ours from the depredations of greater powers. By extension, weaker countries would have to put themselves under the protection of powerful patrons. The post-war rules-based international architecture, already under attack, would weaken further, opening the door to a more anarchic regime where might once again makes right.

Ambassador Suriya Chindawongse, Thailand's permanent representative to the United Nations, did the right thing in taking a principled stand in his remarks to the General Assembly's emergency meeting on Ukraine, as well as offering humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine. It was, however, unfortunate that his superiors in Bangkok took the wind out of his sails by suggesting a neutral stand and preferring to do nothing.

With its deeply divided domestic politics, Thailand has written itself off for too long. It must rid itself of its unduly humble self-image as a small country that should be seen and not heard. With its long tradition of shrewd diplomacy, Thailand was a key Asean player from the beginning. It has the potential to be a regional player, but only if we have the courage of our convictions and punch above our weight. Respect from big powers can be earned only when we dare to say no and do the right thing.

Thailand must make clear that we oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine and call for the cessation of violence and sparing of civilian targets. To demonstrate that we stand with the Ukrainian people, the foreign minister should invite Ukraine's top envoy in Thailand to consult on how best to implement our humanitarian assistance offer.

We should urge the United States and the West to work with Russia to restore mutual confidence and the efficacy of cooperative mechanisms established after the end of the Cold War. As the Soviet empire collapsed, the US and Western leaders had promised Mikhail Gorbachev that Nato would expand "not one inch eastward". Later, in 1994, Russia was among the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum, which pledged to respect Ukrainian independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine's relinquishing its nuclear arsenal. If anything is to be salvaged from these broken promises, all parties concerned will need to work together to address the legitimate security concerns of each -- once Russia withdraws from Ukraine.

If Thailand takes a more proactive and balanced approach now, one can dream that the Apec Summit hosted by Thailand in November this year may offer on its sidelines a rare opportunity for the leaders of China, Russia and the United States to find a peaceful path forward together, renewing hopes for peace, stability and cooperation not only in the Asia-Pacific region but also in Europe and the world.

Senator Pisan Manawapat is former ambassador to the United States and the European Union. Jakkrit Srivali is former ambassador to Hungary.

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