Thai foreign policy to shift with new foreign minister
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Thai foreign policy to shift with new foreign minister

It's not comforting to discuss Thai foreign policy at the moment, as one can hardly tell what is going to happen next.

After the Pheu-Thai government took over last year, the country's optics have been positive, and its regional and international profile has also been elevated, but the unexpected resignation of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara has raised the question of whether Thai foreign policy will be affected overall.

To be frank, the answer is yes.

But it does not necessarily mean a great shift away from the country's diplomatic trajectory that was already mapped out over half a year by Mr Parnpree's influence.

Albeit in power for a brief period, Mr Parnpree, with his youthful, gentlemanly personality and ability to listen, earned the respect and praise of his colleagues.

Mr Parnpree took up dual functions in terms of diplomacy and security under the Srettha government. Both elements are intertwined at this critical junction due to international geopolitical competition.

Early last month, after anti-junta rebel forces attacked Myawaddy, a major trading city opposite Mae Sot district in Tak province, Prime Minister Serttha Thavisin held an emergency meeting among heads of security-related agencies and set up a special committee to address the situation.

Typically, in the Thai context, the local media quickly dubbed such a committee headed by Mr Parnpree as "War Room on the situation in Myanmar".

After the meeting, a series of domestic measures and diplomatic moves were put in place to secure the border and keep the government's ongoing humanitarian assistance plan moving forward.

All provincial authorities were instructed to follow guidelines in the case of bullets straying across the border, border encroachment by armed military groups, and airspace violations by planes or drones, with the latter example being given the most attention by Thai security.

Additionally, one civic measure is to inform the public of the evolving situation impacting people's lives along the porous Thai-Myanmar border.

These scenarios would be handled by the National Security Council, the air force, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However, local and provincial authorities need to be ready as they are on the frontline.

Following the fighting in and around Myawaddy, the four major customs houses -- Mae Sot, Sangkhla Buri district in Kanchanaburi province, Ranong, Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai province, have been instructed to continue facilitating trade and people crossing the border.

In the case of the Myawaddy-Mae Sot trading post, before it was affected by the fighting, the two-way Thai-Myanmar border trade in the first two months of this year amounted to 14 billion baht.

The trade volume has dramatically reduced in the past month due to the flighting, leaving the provincial authorities to hope that normalcy will be restored soon.

While domestic measures and policies governing the Thai-Myanmar border look set to remain intact, there could be some minor changes in approaches and styles on the diplomatic front.

For the time being, it is safe to assume that the new foreign minister, Maris Sangiampongsa and his team will continue with existing plans to bring peace and stability to Myanmar, especially the ongoing humanitarian assistance and close cooperation with the Asean chair.

But it is expected that Thai diplomacy pertaining to neighbouring countries, especially Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, will be more "personalised" -- something reminiscent of the diplomacy under the Thaksin administration in the early 2000s.

It is hopeful that the plan to host the so-called Asean troika meeting, which is scheduled for May 15-16, will proceed.

Alounkeo Kittikhoun, the Asean special envoy on Myanmar for the Lao chair, met and discussed plans in Bangkok recently with Sihasak Phuangketkeow, vice-minister for foreign affairs.

The Asean troika comprises the current, past (Indonesia) and future chair of Asean (Malaysia).

At the Asean foreign ministers' retreat at the end of January, Asean endorsed Thai-Myanmar humanitarian assistance efforts.

Since taking the Asean chair, Vientiane has continued its discreet diplomacy toward Myanmar.

Alounkeo Kittikhoun, the Lao vice-minister for foreign affairs, is planning another visit to Nay Pyi Taw ahead of the Asean foreign ministerial meeting scheduled for the third week of July.

It remains to be seen if Myanmar's non-political officials will be invited to join as the chair did in the retreat.

In humanitarian matters, more needs to be done, which requires additional input from the bloc's dialogue members and the United Nations.

As part of this, the Lao chair and Asean members will need to vet and decide at the upcoming foreign ministerial meeting what the priorities are in addressing matters such as humanitarian corridors.

At the moment, efforts are at bilateral levels, with increased engagement from both official and non-official aid groups, such as Thai and Myanmar's Red Cross Societies working together to hand out aid packages.

Amidst it all, Thailand must keep the ball rolling regarding humanitarian assistance. For the Pheu-Thai government, the Myanmar crisis remains a serious threat that needs to be somehow resolved.

Otherwise, its future development plans and strategic goals could face a negative sum game.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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