Lost for words in Japan

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra paid an official visit to Japan from 22-25 May. As Thailand’s first female premier, Yingluck did not just exploit her charm to win over Japan, but was daring to talk openly about the most sensitive issue facing her country—the protracted political crisis that erupted in the wake of the 2006 military coup. That coup overthrew her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the most successful prime minister in Thailand’s history.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Yingluck held a bilateral talk with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As expected, Yingluck, accompanied by a large entourage of Thai businessmen, sought deeper economic cooperation with Japan. On top of her agenda, Yingluck attempted hard to raise the confidence of Japanese investors to continue to use Thailand as a production base. Two years ago, devastating floods caused severe damages to Japan’s factories mostly located in Thailand’s central plain, igniting a crisis of confidence in the Yingluck government.
The Thai premier proposed a strategic economic partnership with Japan, inviting Japanese conglomerates to invest in the Thailand-led development of the Dawei deep sea port and industrial estates in Myanmar, as well as the Thai project on constructing high-speed trains. The Japanese leadership responded to the Thai calls favourably. 
Yingluck also addressed the 19th Future of Asia conference, co-hosted by the Nikkei and Japan Center for Economic Research, on the topic “Investing in the Future of Asia”. At the height of Thaksin’s popularity in 2002, he, too, delivered a captivated speech at this conference. But eleven years on, political situation in Thailand is rather different. Yingluck stressed the need to put political crisis to rest; but in the process, democratic institutions must be strengthened. She could have referred to the fact that these institutions had been weakened over the past decades by periodic military coups and recent judicial interventions in politics.
In retrospect, relations between Thailand and Japan entered a new phase during the Thaksin administration. Thaksin met with his counterpart, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in 2001 and recommended to commission a study for a “Japan-Thailand Free Trade Agreement” and an “Economic Agreement for Partnership”. These two initial ideas later gave birth to the negotiations of the JTEPA. 
Prior to the JTEPA, bilateral trade had already expanded significantly in the last 20 years. According to Japan Trade Statistics, in 2002, trade between Thailand and Japan totalled JPY2.85 trillion. Japan had long been Thailand’s largest trading partner. Thailand ranked the 8th largest trade partner of Japan. Moreover, Japan had remained the largest investor in the kingdom in terms of the number of investors as well as the amount invested. JTEPA was thus expected to further enhance trade, investment and cooperation between two countries. 
One year after the departure of Thaksin, Japan and Thailand signed on the JTEPA which immediately came into effect. The total trade volume between Thailand and Japan as well as Japan’s direct investment in Thailand has noticeably increased after its implementation. A recent study confirms that, in general, JTEPA improves the real GDP growth of the Thai and Japanese economies by 0.42 per cent and 0.11 per cent respectively. 
Japan was not only Thailand’s essential trading partner. It has been an important friend-in-need of Thailand, as seen during the financial crisis of 1997. Japan contributed generously to the IMF rescue programme, and even went further by providing the Miyazawa Fund to help stimulate a recovery. Japan itself recognised the necessity of continued engagement with Southeast Asian states, not only for its own economic benefits, but also to dilute China’s influence on the region. 
Japan also played a crucial part in Thailand’s regional scheme as development partner. It has been a keen support of the Thai initiative—Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), as elemental in closing the development gap between countries on mainland Southeast Asia. The acceptance of Yingluck’s invitation to invest in Dawei demonstrated Japan’s attitude toward promoting economic development in Southeast Asia.
For the Thai media, Yingluck’s visit to Japan was a big success. It was a bold attempt of her government to take advantage from the already strong relationship both in the economic terms and through the close connection between the royal families of the two countries. However, Thailand’s amicable ties with Japan, as portrayed by Yingluck, are only one side of the story.
The Thai prime minister is still unable to answer Japan’s request to expedite the case of a Japanese cameraman working for Reuters, Hiroyuki Muramoto, who was killed by the Thai security forces during the deadly crackdown on the red-shirt demonstrators on the streets of Bangkok in April 2010. Until now, nobody has been brought to justice in this case.
Back in 2010, Thailand was under a military-backed Democrat Party government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. That deadly crackdown on the protesters led to 100 people being killed and more than 2,000 injured. Muramoto was one of the victims of state’s violence. 
But Yingluck is in a difficult position. Bringing culprits to justice will force her to confront the military which has maintained inimical attitude toward Thaksin, and thus, to a certain extent, Yingluck too. It was unsurprising if Yingluck was lost for words when asked about the progress on the Muramoto case.
But again, Japan seems to signal that, while the Muramoto tragic case presents a thorn in the bilateral relationship, more cooperation with Thailand in other avenues is equally important, if not more; particularly when Japan is embarking on reinventing itself, from being an inactive player in the region, to a more assertive power, for ultimately the increase of Japan’s regional influence in the face of the rise of China.
pavin Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.