'Do not take no for an answer" could be the new hashtag for all Thai diplomats from now on. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahidha-Nukara instructed his lieutenants not to give up or allow themselves to be turned down too easily when they are pursuing a "proactive economic policy".
During four days of brainstorming sessions last week, he urged them all to work harder to ensure Thailand will rise and become a leading world economy, which would bring a higher and more respectable international profile.
For some diplomats, the sessions were like a boot camp where they had to reset their traditional way of thinking and demeanour. In a nutshell, they have to think outside the box to get things done. It was the first time in seven years that the ambassador and consul-general event had been held. This time around, Mr Parnpee, a former Thai trade representative and economist, did not mince any words when he reiterated that the old diplomacy or karn thut babb derm derm was finished, and the time had now come for new diplomacy that would act as the driving force for Thailand to reinforce its influence in international forums and reclaim a prestigious role once again.
To put this into context, Thailand has suffered from international humiliation as a result of the May 2014 coup. Over the past nine years, the country has been trying to salvage its democratic and open-society image, which has been damaged by the coup.
Understandably, any hard work and success under the military could only go so far before it hit a ceiling. Now, with the new coalition government under the Pheu Thai Party, Thailand's position as a democracy has been restored, even though it is still pretty fragile and, according to some, dysfunctional. However, for the international community, friends, and allies, it is a cause célèbre.
That helps explain why Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has spent nearly half of his tenure abroad to reconnect Thailand and reposition its place in the world. He wants to put Thailand back on the international community's radar and to lift the country's economy. Since his government assumed office over two months ago, the geopolitical landscape has dramatically shifted and, in fact, deteriorated markedly. Worse still was the taking hostage of Thai migrant workers in Israel by Hamas, which has prompted the Thai public to question the country's diplomatic power and leverage on the global stage. As of yesterday, 14 Thai hostages had been released through joint assistance from Egypt, Qatar, Iran, and Malaysia.
The meeting last week, in more ways than one, provided a good opportunity for all involved in decision-making in external relations -- in particular, trade and investment -- to get their heads together and familiarise themselves with the new government's leaders as well as their priorities. Well over one hundred Thai ambassadors, consuls-general, charges d'affaires, and acting consuls-general from all overseas missions attended the meeting at a five-star hotel.
Quite a few distinctive features of the newly recalibrated Thai diplomacy emerged.
Thai foreign policy will continue to be based on national interest, international law and seeking friendship with all countries. It will not side with any power and will maintain balanced relations with different powers. It strongly supports Asean and its diplomatic outlook to engage and promote multilateralism.
Lest we forget, an active economic policy has always been the country's main tenet due to its longstanding social and economic development goals in the decades since the Asian financial crisis of 1997. In 2018, the Prayut government launched the 20-year National Strategic Plans (2018-2037), which encompassed a whole gamut of what the country needed to do to face future challenges. Nonetheless, under the current Pheu Thai government, economic affairs have been the main focus. As such, its push is weightier because it has overwhelming control over the policymaking apparatus.
Speedier economic recovery is also more urgent to sustain public support.
At the meeting, the diplomats were told that they were part of "Team Thailand" with two major tasks: the first was to do with economic diplomacy and promoting commerce and investment, and the second was the pride and dignity of Thai workers and investment overseas. Mr Parnpree views Thai diplomats as a key cog in the country's economic-oriented diplomacy.
When it comes to the protection of Thais abroad and investors, he had some unconventional things to say, which surprised the audience. He realised that all diplomats must work hard and also have overloaded work routines, so they should spend their time wisely to promote the country's interests.
"I do not want to have all of you bearing the responsibility of taking care of visiting dignitaries while they are on the duu ngarn tour. In Thai, this means all sorts of foreign visits by Thai bureaucrats that could be fact-finding or study tours.
Mr Parnpree declared that diplomats or embassies should not be the hosts or used as places for holding parties for visiting Thai dignitaries, or phu yai as they are known in Thailand. "I want to see a new working ethic among our bureaucrats in which our pride and dignity rest on our professionalism and responsibility," he emphasised.
Among others, the diplomats received policy guidance from Prime Minister Srettha and the latest briefings from senior officials dealing with trade, investment, and international economic cooperation. For this government, it attaches great importance to cooperation with neighbouring countries and members of various economic frameworks such as the Ayeywaddy-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (Acemcs), Asean, Bay of Bengal Initiative Multi-Sector Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the European Union. In addition, Thailand is seeking to join other platforms, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
A notable session was the discussion with border provincial governors, academia, and the private sector on trade, industry, real estate, services, and energy on trending issues such as the digital economy, soft power, technology and innovation, the land bridge project, energy security, carbon neutrality and carbon credit.
In the end, as one seasoned diplomat put it, all the sessions were "very extensive, very exhaustive but very value-added and well worth it" for him and his colleagues.