The big issue: Foreign affairs

The big issue: Foreign affairs

For months, if not years, prior to May 22, most Western and some Asian governments had lobbied the Thai military hard, stating or plainly warning that a direct overthrow of the government would bring strong reactions, some measured punishments and loud recriminations from overseas.

It is a mystery, then, why the generals who became the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) were so badly prepared when everything proceeded exactly as warned and predicted. "Foreign affairs will not be affected,"was a line in Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha's very first speech announcing martial law. Why was he so wrong?

The reactions of many foreign governments, particularly from the West, included mild sanctions, cutting of some diplomatic or economic agreements and more. But while no one argues that either politicians or the military should allow foreigners to dictate or influence their patriotic actions, the military was stunningly unprepared for the criticism and penalties - even though they were exceedingly light.

The United States and Australia caught the early heat of criticism from the mostly yellow-shirt supporters appalled at foreign "interference" in local politics. Europe is now widely seen as chief punisher, by even banning visits by top coup leaders.

But it was the United Kingdom last week that tweaked the coup authorities. The BBC, which operates under government charter and permission, brought back the Thai-language service in a new form. Cancelled in 2006, the service was re-constituted on Thursday evening as a wall at Facebook.com/BBCThai.

Passport revocation is another NCPO policy that will earn them criticism from abroad. The first round of cancellations targeted Pheu Thai and red shirt leaders, including the "Free Thai" founders Charupong Ruangsuwan and Jakrapob Penkair.

But last week, the junta stepped up its new policy, pulling the passport of Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the University of Kyoto. Mr Pavin is a long-time Bangkok Post oped contributor, social critic and opponent of the lese majeste laws. But he never has been charged with a crime.

The summary justice of cancelling passports - a document that was until last month a birthright, not a privilege - will be strongly criticised at home and abroad, and not least because the junta hasn't shown the nerve to cancel Thailand's most controversial passport of all, held by Lord Voldemort na Dubai.

Thais who land on foreign front pages as they apply for political asylum abroad will not earn the NCPO the kindly understanding it claims foreign countries owe its "different" kind of coup.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has at least twice protested against the military council's attempts to harass the woman known as "London Rose". A monarchy hater, she is also a naturalised British citizen, and UK diplomats have told Thailand to stop bothering her.

The jaw dropper of the past week, however, came in what started as yet another "briefing" on the magnificence of coup politics, with an audience of all 20 military attaches and five other diplomats by the army's Director of Intelligence, Maj Gen Panot Saengthian.

After yet another exposition of how the coup saved Thailand from a severe foot shooting, Maj Gen Panot called on the foreigners to "follow up" the movements of Thai anti-coup activists in their countries. "The council said that such movements appeared to incite unrest," according to a report by the quasi-official Mcot news organisation. When the foreign attaches recovered, they returned the junta's service with a strong forehand, suggesting the NCPO immediately marshal the combined forces of non-government organisations to work to solve problems the coup-makers claim they can solve by themselves.

It remains to be seen if the coup authorities caught the irony.

Common wisdom currently holds that the Chinese are grinning and making great diplomatic headway simply by remaining silent. Beijing's "business as usual" outlook will make inroads at the expense of Western countries and traditional treaty and trading partners.

Perhaps. Certainly China has no noticeable qualms about dealing with countries on their own terms - despotic or democratic, nasty or nice.

Late this week, President Xi Jinping begins a four-nation Latin American trip that runs the gamut from constitutional Argentina to Cuba, a world leader in human rights abuses. Last week, China announced it had invited Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, president of the Privy Council, to visit the country "to foster relations".

But it's super-simplistic to suppose China has won the lottery simply by failing to criticise or punish the coup. For one thing, diplomacy is hardly a zero-sum event. More importantly, Thailand's foreign policy always mentions bamboo, the plant that bends with the wind, and never breaks.

Which was why the country's only senior Foreign Ministry representative flew last week, not to Beijing or New Delhi or Cairo, but to New York.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the permanent secretary who is doing his best to stand in during this long period without a minister, sought to dispatch the storied two birds, meaning some influential Americans and the United Nations, with one stone.

The trip showed why the junta needs a government. Without a foreign minister, Thailand simply cannot keep up in international diplomacy. Mr Sihasak is widely respected, by ambassadors to Thailand and by his peers abroad, but respect doesn't open the doors to the top floor suites where the Big Names work and live. Only a minister can do that.

On Monday, he said he had asked UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon for a chance to brief him on the developments in Thailand. On Tuesday, official media said the meeting was pending "because of the UN chief's busy schedule". On Wednesday, the meeting with Mr Ban was supposedly cancelled, although he sent an underling, the "Chef de Cabinet to the Executive Office", to talk with Mr Sihasak.

The NCPO's foreign representative had no public discussions with senior US diplomats.

A comparable situation with the Ban fiasco played out at The New York Times, where reporters, not the editor, agreed to hear Mr Sihasak explain that the coup, in his words, “was Thailand's last resort to bring the country back to normalcy and help keep the democracy, not destroy it".

No Thai media were present at that interview but Mr Sihasak gave it low marks and a poor review. More in frustration than anger, he said the US journalists made no attempt even to "try to understand the complicated political context before the coup".

The top Thai diplomat put the very best light on the excruciating discomfort of a three-day return flight to New York and finding so many closed doors this way: He felt positive vibes when he talked to officials from Iraq and Venezuela - hardly nations with influence or many friends.

Alan Dawson

Online Reporter / Sub-Editor

A Canadian by birth. Former Saigon's UPI bureau chief. Drafted into the American Armed Forces. He has survived eleven wars and innumerable coups. A walking encyclopedia of knowledge.

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