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The perils of personalised Thai diplomacy

Thai foreign policy in the past year has been dominated by the performance of Surapong Tovichakchaikul. The foreign minister has also doubled as deputy prime minister and, since early December, as chief of the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO), dealing with the anti-government protests. The many tasks Surapong has been given - despite the availability of more suitable candidates - speaks volumes for Thaksin Shinawatra's deep personal trust in the man. This is a blessing for Surapong, as it confirms him as a leading figure in Thaksin's inner circle. For the country, though, it's a curse.

His latest role as a security chief is the most intriguing, because it fits his character and behaviour. He was typically stern, with heavy-lidded eyes during his latest public statement on the situation in Bangkok, delivered at Royal Thai Police Headquarters. Rather than seeking to reassure his audience with constant eye contact, he grimly followed his prepared text. The image was mean and direct, especially when he accused largely peaceful protesters of breaking the law and using violence against security forces.

For the past year, Surapong has effectively personalised Thai diplomacy, facilitating Thaksin's life in exile by working both publicly and privately to ensure the former premier can travel unhindered. Thai ambassadors stationing in key capitals also provide diplomatic services to Thaksin. Last October, Surapong even asked the Japanese Foreign Ministry to issue Thaksin an entry visa to Japan while he was in Seoul. Tokyo was brave enough to say no.

In order to protect the Yingluck government, he also urged the Bangkok-based diplomatic community - very much to their bewilderment - to condemn the protesters and back the government's action against them as well as support the February 2 election plan.

During his first briefing as CAPO chief to the diplomatic corps and international organisations on December 2, Surapong sprang a surprise. He urged the international community to intervene in Thai politics to help boost the government's legitimacy. Furthermore, he had initially planned to ask the United Nations Security Council to take action against the street riots. It was a bit naive and far-fetched to flag the idea, but it demonstrated how far Surapong would go to serve Thaksin.

His actions drew strong and almost universal criticism within the Foreign Ministry. Several senior officials privately denounced his actions and accused him of putting personal ties ahead of his loyalty to the country. High officials have a duty to defend the nation, they said, but to defend Thaksin in the name of the country is an atrocious thing to do.

As the crisis deepened, Surapong directly urged the Bangkok-based diplomatic corps to back the Yingluck government. On December 8, he invited them for a briefing at the Foreign Ministry and then to tour Government House to observe crowd-control measures put in place by police. According to an ambassador attending the briefing, the scheduled tour was eventually aborted after lived TV showed protesters surrounding Government House. The diplomats did not like the idea of becoming human shields.

But Surapong did not stop there. A few days later, in anticipation of the Asean-Japan Summit in Tokyo, he requested the Asean chair, Brunei, to issue a joint statement on the situation in Thailand. A seven-paragraph statement was prepared by the Thai Foreign Ministry and circulated. After consultations on the sideline at the Asean-Japan Summit, it was reduced to three paragraphs, which was later issued by Brunei and sent to Asean members with a reference letter to the Thai request attached.

The joint statement called for all parties concerned to resolve the conflicts "through dialogue and consultations in a peaceful and democratic manner". The Asean leaders also reiterated that political stability in Thailand was essential to achieving a peaceful, stable and prosperous Asean.

It was an unprecedented action for Asean leaders to comment on an internal situation as serious as Thailand's. In the past, individual Asean countries have issued their own separate statements in response to political developments in neighbouring countries. Quite a few such statements have been issued over the last few years on Myanmar and its need for reforms.

It would be unfair to blame the whole of the Foreign Ministry for Surapong's missteps and personal ambition. A few good officials have sought, with the highest professionalism, to explain the Thai situation without distortions or public-relations spin. They continue to protect the country's interest and credibility in regional and global forums. That helps explain why Thailand's multilateral diplomacy remains very active even during such a stressful time.

The Saranrom Palace has been through this drill many times before. Officials there are used to living with and responding to the blunders made by the power-wielders of the day.


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