Thais split over Russia-Ukraine conflict
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Thais split over Russia-Ukraine conflict

Lidiya Zhuravlyova, a Ukrainian-born performance artist, takes part in an anti-war protest in Bangkok late last month. Russian military action against Ukraine has caused divisive debates among Thai intellectuals, diplomats and media personalities. (Photo: Reuters)
Lidiya Zhuravlyova, a Ukrainian-born performance artist, takes part in an anti-war protest in Bangkok late last month. Russian military action against Ukraine has caused divisive debates among Thai intellectuals, diplomats and media personalities. (Photo: Reuters)

The Russia-Ukraine war has managed to divide the Thai public with three different outlooks on the crisis -- strong condemnation, non-partisan, or support for the UN charter. For the first time since the Cambodian conflict four decades ago, Russian military action has caused divisive debates among Thai intellectuals, diplomats, and media personalities about the country's position on the situation.

Some have questioned the efficacy of the long tenet of Thai foreign policy, which is often described as "sitting on the fence".

During the past three weeks, alongside the Ukraine war, local media have focused on the death of "Tang Mo", or Nida Patcharaveerapong, the well-known actress who died falling from a boat in the Chao Phraya River under suspicious circumstances. Some reports and debates about the war in the media have been sensational and dramatised as they compete for the audiences who have been avidly following her death.

Meanwhile, the stance of other Asean members on the conflict at the UN or at home has not been questioned by their public. Apart from Vietnam and Laos, which abstained, the rest voted in favour of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution on March 3 condemning the invasion.

The case of Myanmar was an unusual one as the current UN Permanent Representative for Myanmar remains in the hands of the veteran envoy, Kyaw Moe Tun, whose credentials belong to the former National League of Democracy-led government. Of course, he voted in favour of the resolution, while Myanmar's military junta has expressed support for the Russian action.

Only Cambodia went further than the rest of its Asean colleagues by co-sponsoring the resolution. It was a calculated diplomatic move -- a la Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Khmer media praised his strategic thinking which caught the kingdom's friends off guard. Cambodia was part of the fraternal group of former Indochinese countries that include Vietnam and Laos. The former Soviet Union used to maintain strong security and economic ties with the group.

Thailand voted in favour of the resolution, joining 140 other members. Dr Suriya Chindawongse, permanent representative of Thailand to the UN, made three important points to justify the country's support of the resolution.

First of all, like the other 140 UN members, Thailand attaches overriding importance to the principles enshrined in the UN Charter and international laws respecting sovereignty, territorial integrity and the non-use of force against states.

In addition, given its past history of dealing with Indochinese refugees, Thailand underlined its deep concern for the plight of affected civilians and the humanitarian crisis that would follow. Thailand called on all parties to fully comply with international humanitarian law.

Finally, the country called for all parties to enhance dialogue to settle the conflict through peaceful means. Thailand also expressed concern over the potential long-term consequences of the conflict upon the rules-based international order.

Although Thailand's UNGA position was well received, some Thai foreign policy wonks were unhappy. They wanted to see a stronger position taken by the Thai government by naming and shaming Russia as the aggressor. In particular, Thai youth and young politicians wanted to condemn Russia out loud and support Ukraine for the unprovoked attack. To them, it is about democracy fighting autocracy.

Ukraine is an independent and democratic country, and its sovereignty and territorial integrity must not be violated. While they had very strong opinions about Ukraine; they nevertheless lack basic knowledge of the complex history of Russia-Ukraine relations.

Among Thais working in the tourism industry, who have close contact with Russian visitors, in particular, those able to distinguish Russia and Ukraine as two separate countries, will understand how close the two peoples are.

To Thais, Russians are super-rich and their women are beautiful. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, approximately 1.56 million tourists from Russia visited Thailand. Recently, with the Phuket sandbox, they were coming back. However, with the drastic economic sanctions imposed by the West, money transfers through Swift have been halted and thousands of reservations have subsequently been cancelled. At this moment, at least 7,000 Russian and Ukrainian tourists vacationing in Phuket cannot use credit cards to pay for their bills. All concerned parties are seeking ways to make their vacation less problematic.

But the Thai establishment has a better understanding of Russia due to their close historical ties. This helps explain the first mild statement issued by Thailand in the early hours of the conflict that ran just 32 words in two short paragraphs, which did not say much except express concern and a call for dialogue.

Some former Thai diplomats were critical of their colleagues. To comprehend the Thai position, one needs to look back when Siam was a target for Western colonisation and how the country was able to stay independent until today.

As such, the stand is more than skin deep.

It derives from historical Siam-Russia ties. King Chulalongkorn visited Russia in 1897 and met with Tsar Nicholas II. His trip was reported on the front pages in Europe. Their meeting played an influential role in preserving Siam's independence.

There were lots of stories about the royal courts of Siam and Russia, which played their part in the evolution of Thai-Russian relations.

This year, both countries are commemorating their 125 years of friendship.

Such factors fed into discussions about what would be the pros and cons if Thailand chose to abstain from voting, just like China, India, Vietnam and Laos.

On a personal level, Russia's leader Vladimir Putin has an intimate knowledge of Thailand and the Thai elites, both businessmen and politicians. These relations go back to the 1990s when Mr Putin was still working at St Petersburg's Mayor's office as head of the Committee for External Relations. It was Mr Putin who recommended Yuri Valentinovich Kovalchuk as the current Thai honorary consul in St Peterburg. Since then, Mr Putin's connections in Thailand have only grown stronger. According to a highly placed source, Mr Putin promised to attend the Asia Pacific Leaders' Meeting in Bangkok on Nov 18-19, a promise now impacted by the conflict.

But economic ties between Thailand and Russia are relatively small. Last year, bilateral trade was just around US$1 billion (33 billion baht), a pittance in comparison with other major powers. But Thailand, as well as other Asean members, value Russia and its strategic weight against other great powers. Of late, Russia's close military ties with the military junta in Nay Pyi Taw have been a subject of discussion among the Asean leaders.

The rainbow-hued debates over the Russian-Ukraine war are indicative of the growing public attention about the crisis. Younger generations, through social media, are able to connect instantly with regional and international supporters and detractors depending on their convictions, whatever they are. It will surprise nobody that these types of debates will continue and could be contagious, taking on key foreign policy issues that can connect with local leitmotifs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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