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Can a samak-led thailand guide asean's future?

Thai diplomacy will go through a minefield in the next 21 months.

Published on March 10, 2008

 With some strategic thinking, we can muddle through. Better still, if the power wielders understand what is at stake for their country and the region's future, Thailand, as the incoming Asean chair, might pull it off.

At the recent Asean ministerial retreat in Singapore, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan was told to perform his duties as if the Asean Charter had been ratified. The ministers were also mindful of the political hurdles in Indonesia and the Philippines, which could affect the charter's implementation.

Thailand has no choice but to go ahead full throttle. Like it or not, Bangkok has to show leadership in setting forth the direction and pace of Asean's future.

The country will succeed Singapore as the new Asean chair at the end of June and host the 13th Asean Summit from December 15 to 18. That will mark the end of the old Asean. It will be an appropriate farewell for the grouping founded in Bang Saen in 1967. When the sun rises on the New Year in 2009, a new Asean, with a new legal personality will emerge.

Frankly speaking, this is a huge responsibility and a mission impossible for Thailand. Under the charter, as Asean chair, Thailand will have to convene two additional summits next year. The informal summit will take place during the first half of next year and another official summit will be held next December. Apart from the three Asean summits it must host, Thailand, over the next 21 months, will also play host to the East Asian and Asean Plus Three summits as well as at least a dozen summits with dialogue partners.

With numerous high-power meetings, the focus is naturally on the role of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. What he will say in the summits and how he will conduct the meetings are matters of speculation. Suffice it to say the face of Thailand and its centuries-old diplomatic reputation will hang in the balance.

Samak chose to visit the Foreign Ministry as his first stop after becoming prime minister. He told senior officials there that he would listen to them on foreign policy but he reserved "the right to say something of his own". That remark sent chills throughout the conference room.

Samak is a well known orator who can engage listeners both outdoors or inside radio and TV studios. In short, he can mobilise and arouse people through the spoken word. He knows sound bites. As a former columnist, he is a wordsmith who cranks out news-speak. That was why he was able to pre-empt media criticisms by labelling his own Cabinet "ugly ducklings", which the media immediately gobbled up. That kind of self-pity and sarcasm was a clever spin.

But those who watched the interviews he gave to CNN and al-Jazeera will immediately recognise that this man has a forked tongue and lacks credibility. He dared to lie through his teeth about the country's most important episode of political carnage. Worse, he had the audacity to repeat the lie for a worldwide audience. Thailand faces an uncertain future when someone like that will be doing most of the talking in coming months.

Moving beyond leadership problems, the summit host can highlight the important issues of human rights and people-centred community building. In the previous government under General Surayud Chulanont, Thailand failed miserably to push forward these values due to the coup and the interim government's lack of political legitimacy. Now, with a new elected government, the country's overall image should have improved accordingly. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. The revival of the notorious shoot-first-talk-later anti-drugs campaign last month has already tarnished Bangkok's human-rights reputation. Extrajudicial killings related to drugs suspects are expected to increase.

It will be interesting to watch how the Samak government can push for liberal terms of reference in establishing a human-rights body in Asean. This will be a bone of contention among the grouping's core and new members. The Foreign Ministry understands importance of human rights both in the domestic and international context, but it will not be able to carry out this noble goal.

Since the founding of Asean, Thailand has been pushing for the broader and wider participation of stakeholders from Asean. Its proposal to set up the Asean People's Council in 1995 was shot down as Asean fears change coming from the grass roots. As summit host, Thailand would want to ensure that all civil society groups from Asean are able to participate fully and actively in all Asean processes. After all, how can Asean create a strong sense of belonging if it does not have the participation of Asean citizens?

Bangkok hopes that Asean non-governmental actors will use this opportunity to further consolidate themselves and create a future template by augmenting their voices in the decision-making process in Asean.

Thailand's ability to lead Asean will depend on its commitment and vision to further integrating Asean by bringing everybody on board. But to do that we need a leader who is not full of a sense of self-importance and who does not indulge in cruel lies.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

The Nation

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