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NCPO diplomatic priorities during crisis

The mood was friendly with mutual understanding at the first meeting abroad in Singapore followed the May 22 coup between Foreign Minister Shanmugam and Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, who is serving as acting foreign minister. Shanmugam was in the news for his comments that Singapore and Asean understood the situation in Thailand and has not thought of any sanctions.

Today, senior foreign ministry officials is scheduled to visit Nayphidaw, the Asean chair, to explain the timeframe and measures set by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to bring back normalcy and democracy to Thailand. Myanmar has been quite supportive of its eastern neighbor's recent development.

Followed the imposition of martial law on 20 May and two day later the Thai military's seizure of power, there was a sense of unease among Asean members. Indonesia, as the grouping's leading democracy, has called for a special urgent foreign ministerial meeting to discuss the situation in Thailand and South China Sea to follow-up on the issues discussed at the recent Asean summit. The suggestion was unprecedented because it would for the first time take on a specific country in Asean.

After some exchanges among the members throughout last week, there was no consensus if there should be such a meeting on Thailand. However, a specific ministerial meeting on the regional situation that includes the South China Sea dispute or even Thailand could be on the offing. The Foreign Ministry has indicated that Thailand would not object to discuss the home condition as part of the broader regional agenda in Asean.

Given the current tense situation between Vietnam and China over an oil-rig dispute in part of South China Sea, Asean is contemplating whether to support Hanoi's call for an urgent meeting to address the crisis, which resulted in two deaths and over one hundred injured at sea. Vietnam has been encouraging Asean to come out with a stronger position on the latest dispute.

Albeit the coup, Thailand's foreign policy continues remain active without any change, especially towards Asean. As the coordinator of Asean-China relations, Bangkok has continued was its role without any disruption. A new round of meeting among the working group to negotiate on the code of conduct in the South China Sea, its eighth over a decade-old series, has been set on 24-25 June in Bali, Indonesia. This upcoming consultation is pivotal as China and Asean will try to put on their common positions together and the possibility of setting up a joint team of eminent and expert group.

After the coup, former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusriphitak was appointed by NCPO as one of 10-member advisory committee to oversee foreign affairs. To bolster his portfolio, Somkid has also appointed three additional veteran diplomats - ML Saktip Krairisksh, Don Parimad and Virasakdi Futrakul - who were former ambassadors to Washington DC. Their urgent task was to restore the country's faltered image and find ways to strengthen cooperation with Asean and countries which show understanding of Thailand's political reality.

Future relations with major powers - in particular the US and European Community - will be problematic in the near and medium terms. Washington has been quick and harsh in condemning the coup with a series of sanctions including military aid, senior official visits and joint military exercises. Last week's ongoing bilateral naval exercise, Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, was halted. A plan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of sprawling US mission's residence on the Wireless Road last week was also postponed.

For the forthcoming Traffic In Persons or TIP report, Thailand could be further sanctioned by the US due to its record on human trafficking and gross violation of migrant workers' basic rights. The US currently provides a total of US$10.5 million of assistance to Thailand including US$3.5 military aid and training programs.

Furthermore, US State Secretary John Kerry's comment of "no justification" for the coup drew strong rebuttals from the NCPO which faulted Washington's lack of understanding on the ground situation. Latest comment in Singapore by US Defence Minister Chuck Hagel of democratic retreat did not help either. The Thai-US squabbling could affect the status of Cobra Gold, an annual multinational military exercise hosted by Thailand and the US. The NOPC is confidence the next year's exercise will continue as it is Washington's biggest military platform in the Asia Pacific in expanding strategic interoperability among allies and friends. China is one of the observers.

In respond to a telephone call after the coup from Daniel Russel, Assistant State Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, a senior Thai foreign ministry official repeatedly warned Washington of strong public mood swing against the US condemnation, which could have far-reaching repercussions on Thai-US relations. The US must draw valuable lessons over mishandling of numerous crises in the past three decades related to its oldest ally of 182 years in politics (1992, 2006), financial (1997) and jurisprudence (2010), to name just a few.

Over the next 15-month time-frame pledged by the NCPO for the next election, its foreign policy team will have the unique opportunity to reassess ties with the US, China, Russia, India and EU. The outcome will reflect Thailand's own rebalancing diplomacy based on a new reality toward major powers with the emerging strategic environment.


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