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World 'won't accept' brass as foreign minister

Officials hope NCPO avoids move as it could hurt nation's diplomatic clout

The Foreign Ministry might find it difficult to fulfil its mission to put Thailand in a leading position in the international community if the new foreign minister to be picked soon carries a military rank, senior ministry officials said yesterday.

Junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who might take the premiership, reportedly prefers his deputy General Tanasak Patimapragorn, who is also the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, as the new foreign minister. The four-star general is now the deputy chief of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) overseeing foreign affairs and the ministry.

The problem is that it is difficult for Thai envoys to explain to their foreign counterparts and the international community why Thailand needs to have a military officer as foreign minister when the country has plenty of capable diplomats, the officials said.

Foreign affairs and diplomacy are the missions of civilians, not the military, they said. "Having two coups within less than a decade is hard enough to explain," said a senior official on condition of anonymity.

Military and police officers dominate the National Legislative Assembly. If any of them is put in the cabinet as the foreign minister, Thailand would be perceived as a real military state, an official said.

Thailand has been free from military officers serving as foreign ministers since the 1980s.

The last military officer in the position was Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila, who was picked for the position in 1980 by then prime minister General Kriangsak Chamanan.

However, Siddhi later served the position in his capacity as the leader of the Social Action Party, which was a coalition partner in Prem Tinsulanonda and later Chartichai Choonhavan's Cabinets.

Prasong Soonsiri, a squadron leader, and Thaksin Shinawatra, who holds the title of lieutenant colonel in the police force, used to serve as foreign minister, but in the capacity of a professional politician, not security officers.

Military-backed governments have in the past recruited retired diplomats, namely Arsa Sarasin after the coup in 1991 and Nitya Pibulsonggram after the coup of 2006 as foreign minister.

However, Kiat Sittheeamorn, former president of the Thai Trade Tepresentative office, said it did not matter how high-ranking a minister was or what positions he had held before becoming a cabinet member, what mattered were the ability and expertise.

From conversations with many diplomats, Kiat said those from Asian countries have said their countries would not interfere in Thailand's political or domestic affairs.

However, they believe a civilian government would be easier to approach than a military-led government, said Kiat, who is also a deputy leader of the Democrat Party.

It is difficult for Western countries that have shown anti-coup stances all along to fully support a government that is the result of a military coup.

While some international benefit schemes such as the generalised system of preferences actually depend on negotiation, the kind of government and the ability of its ministers will all be taken into account, he said.


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