The best description of Thailand-Philippine friendship would be as twins separated at birth. Both countries are close allies of the US and each has their ups and downs. They fought side by side as members of the UN-led international forces in the Korean War.
During much of their modern history, they shared similar unsavoury narratives — trying to get rid of squatter areas, to reduce the national income gap as well as overcoming the “middle-income trap”. In addition, during the 1970s and 1980s, their overseas workers suffered the same plight with low levels of help from home.
But their common aspirations are much bigger and overwhelming – to be the freest and most democratic members of Asean.
Thais and Filipinos appreciate each others’ political experience in exercising their people power. In particular, they shared a common desire to topple dictatorial regimes and it was indeed transformational. The Filipinos learned from the Thais how to stage long-lasting protests by adding attractions such as entertainment and good food. The Thais followed the Filipino campaigns of mass mobilisation with strong deliverable messages. Together, their people have made public participation in the democratic process a norm within the Asean context.
Indeed, both are emotionally driven people and at the same time very passionate – never a dull moment on the streets of either capital. Their peoples smile and laugh even when they are suffering but they differ when it comes to making conversation. Filipinos are more talkative and blunt. Thais, in contrast, are more circumspect and shy. But most importantly, they are both happy-go-lucky nations.
After the failed coup in 1987, Thailand was the first to give support to the Corazon Aquino government and immediately pledged to attend the Asean Summit there to show solidarity with the civilian government.
Other Asean leaders also demonstrated a similar resolve by joining the summit, despite uncertainty about security and other threats.
Without the unwavering support of the Philippines, the founding of Asean would not have been possible. During tense negotiations at the Bang Saen Resort ahead of the signing of the Bangkok Declaration on August 8, 1967, Foreign Minister Narciso Ramos, the father of former president Fidel, was instrumental in getting the discussions going. He frequently fired up conversations and created an atmosphere of camaraderie among the founding fathers, who were at times persistent in getting their views across.
Above all, their press system and media culture are also very similar – free, but from time to time printing unsubstantiated news and information.
Media organisations and journalists from both countries have longstanding cooperation and knowledge-sharing. Thai journalists honed their investigative skills from their Filipino friends and vice versa.
Filipinos working for civil society groups and and grassroots organisations are prominent figures here. Apart from managerial positions, they are the largest group, with about 17,000 Filipinos residing in Thailand. They help to sharpen concerns among Thais on the environment, the rights of women and children, to name but a few. Without the Filipino high-octane campaigners, human rights and gender equality awareness in this country would not have reached the level witnessed today, especially for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual group.
When President Rodrigo Duterte begins his two-day visit today, he will carry all the past goodwill and feel-good feeling to build on future ties with Thailand.
Since he took power last June, he has already showed he shares two passions with Thais – protecting the rights of migrant workers, and a drug-free Asean. These two issues will serve as a bridge to reconnect the two countries in their future path to create a better Asean community.
Existing cooperation on counter-terrorism and extremists will continue unabated. Exchange of intelligence on Islamic State fighters will intensify, as some have passed through Thailand to go to the southern Philippines. There will be four documents signed, touching on bilateral cooperation on science and technology, agriculture, tourism and livestock.
Furthermore, both countries want to do more trade. Duterte will meet the Filipino community here as well as Thai businessmen and potential investors to boost economic cooperation.
Last year, two-way trade volume was nearly US$10 billion (Bt360 billion) with the trade surplus on the Thai side. The Philippines is the fifth largest trading partner of Thailand within Asean.
But private sector representatives of the two countries have not met and exchanged thoughts for quite sometime. Both sides have established a joint trade committee but their members have not met once.
With the Duterte government’s emphasis on small and medium enterprises, the digital economy and innovation, Thailand can benefit from sharing its know-how and link-up local start-ups.
Thailand has strongly supported all initiatives taken by Manila, the current Asean chair, including commemorative programmes planned throughout the year. There are well over 100 activities to mark the 50th anniversary of Asean, which Thailand will fully engage in.
One of them is the lighting up of Asean iconic landmarks in Asean member countries.
Manila also plans to arrange a tribute to the founding fathers of Asean on Asean Day – August 8, 2017. One of them will be Dr Thanat Khoman, the former Thai foreign minister, who initiated the idea of establishing Asean.