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Thailand must be careful what it wishes for

Caretaker Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul probably did not understand the full repercussions of inviting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to help in the conflict between the Yingluck government, which he represents, and anti-government protesters.

If Ban accepts the overture, it will be unprecedented in the annals of Thailand and Asean.

First of all, no country on earth would invite the world body to get involved in such a domestic conflict, especially when it is a low intensity dispute. Certainly, the death of four children over the past three-months of unrest has galvanized public outrage both at home and abroad towards the Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order and concerned agencies for their utter failure to arrest the culprits and guarantee public safety. However, by any diplomatic standard, the Thai situation as it is today still does not warrant any UN involvement.

The UN chief, through his spokesperson, has issued three statements so far regarding the situation in Thailand — one in November last year and two more recent ones on February 23 and 26. The latest comments were responding to the death of four children both in Trat and in front of Big C Superstore at Rajprasong, urging all conflicting parties to stop violence and in particular the government to "bring those responsible to justice". Towards the end of his statement on February 23, Ban expressed his readiness in general to assist "in any way possible." Then, the release on February 26 was more specific stating his "readiness to assist the parties and Thai people in any way possible."

Whenever there is a political crisis over here, the UN is commonly featured in the local news headlines as a possible neutral mechanism or mediator to resolve the country's ongoing conflicts. This time is no exception. What is intriguing is the manner Surapong has chosen to do so. It indicates his desperation to further bring international pressure to bear on domestic issues, particularly the demonstrators.

Since his appointment as part of the caretaker government's security team, Surapong has been trying to involve the UN in his personal capacity. He thought that the UN would favor the government, which came to power through election. For instance, before the election on February 2, Surapong put all his energy to garnering support from the international community, through the Bangkok-based diplomatic corps and foreign lobbyists, for the planned poll. Both Yingluck and Surapong spoke to Ban about the political situation and blamed the opposition for the ongoing trouble. The opposition party, Abhisit Vejjajiva, quickly rebutted their unfound allegations later on during conversation with Ban.

Surapong has now become the first Thai Cabinet minister to invite the UN chief to enter into the country's political minefields. The People's Democratic Reform Committee condemned his action. By courting the UN, the besieged Yingluck government hoped to increase its legitimacy and further cringe to power. It is rather ironic. Surapong's boss, Thaksin Shinawatra, belittled the UN in 2003 when his record on extrajudicial killings was under scrutiny. "The UN is not my father," Thaksin infamously proclaimed, showing his defiance of any UN attempt to interfere in Thailand's internal affairs. Now, Surapong is doing exactly the opposite, even as the culture of impunity and violence continues unabated.

Obviously Surapong was acting on his own volition without any consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Professional diplomats both at home and abroad understand how to engage the UN and its agencies on matters pertaining to national interests and sovereignty. Every move has to be thoroughly planned and executed, not a knee jerk reaction of the kind Surapong loves to make.

Worse still, some Bangkok-based Asean diplomats were equally perplexed by his invitation to the UN chief. If Thailand was willing to invite a credible and neutral outsider to help with mediation, Asean should have been consulted given Thailand's past engagement in the grouping and intra-Asean conflicts.

In the long run, Thailand's dealing with the UN will eventually impact on Asean as a whole. When Thailand and Cambodia locked horns over the Preah Vihear/Praviharn Temple in 2008 and thereafter, the UN Security Council urged the conflicting parties to use the existing regional mechanism — Asean — to help settle the dispute. In this case, Surapong should have had the decency to inform Asean if he genuinely wanted to resolve the conflict, not just simply lobby for the support of Yingluck and Thaksin.

Unmistakably, Thailand has opened a Pandora's box regarding foreign intervention in domestic affairs. Surapong's recklessness and naivety have already set a precedent for revealing his country's fault lines. In months and years to come, other diplomatic activities and policies must now be consistent with our declared tolerance for foreign intervention. Bangkok's future bargaining power on this front would be further weakened especially on cross-border issues, which could complicate future Thailand-UN cooperation.


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