Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014.
The constant change of political regimes—from democratic to military rule and back again—has caused a huge impact on the position of Thailand in the global community, as much as the role of Thai diplomats overseas. Since the military took power in a coup that overthrew an elected government in May 2014, the Thai Foreign Ministry has become the frontline agency that has been assigned to deal with clarifying the Thai political situation to foreign countries. Most importantly, Thai diplomats have been told to say “nice things” about the coup.
This phenomenon might not be unique to Thailand. In some authoritarian states, their Foreign Ministry serves as the regime’s mouthpiece in seeking legitimacy and recognition from the outside world. But in the Thai case, regular coups have led to unpredictable shifts to the Thai position. One day before a coup, the Foreign Ministry may appear to be embracing democratic values. A day after that coup, the same old Foreign Ministry may beg to world to welcome the arrival of despotism.
It is a sad state of the Thai Foreign Ministry. It is true that government officials, in this case, Thai diplomats, are obliged to serve the interests of the government in power. But the radical shift from upholding democratic principle to endorsing an authoritarian regime overnight indicates the lack of self-esteem among Thai diplomats. It could possibly damage the reputation of the Thai Foreign Ministry, and surely that of the Thai diplomatic representatives.
It is undeniable that, as emphasized above, many in the Foreign Ministry have been forced to craft an angelic image of the current military rule of Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. But some are more than willing to help recreate an image of a dictator in a more acceptable fashion. Thus, it is not surprising to read articles, commentaries, or press releases by the Thai Foreign Ministry, or Thai ambassadors, that exceedingly praised the despotic regime. Some were eager to rewrite the Thai political situation even when this was built on fabrications and glorifications.
For example, Pisan Manawapat, the current Thai ambassador to Washington, in February, wrote a letter to the editor published in Washington Post, fabricating a story of Thailand without any political prisoners. He went on to legitimize the Prayuth regime by saying that the Martial Law was necessary and that the Thai public was not affected by this deterrence. In the end, Pisan concluded that Thailand’s goal was to achieve democratic rule where key principles such as good governance, transparency and accountability were to be respected. Perhaps, Pisan was talking about a different Thailand.
Since the colour-coded politics has come to define the societal landscape, conflict and division have begun to shape relationship among members of the communities, including those in the Foreign Ministry. This is an institution that has brought together many crème-de-la-crème individuals who are good at what they are doing. But personal caliber is never adequate if one wants to become a successful diplomat. One may need a political connection. And in this age of protracted political conflicts, a right alliance with those power holders is necessary.
Today, the image of the Foreign Ministry as being a workplace for the privileges still exists, although in the past years, younger diplomats stemmed from rather diverse backgrounds. Somewhat, being conservative is still a favorite choice among Thai diplomats. The more they appear to be conservative, the more they will be perceived as being special, admirable and surely trusted. This explains why many Thai diplomats lent their support for the conservative elites, particularly during the anti-Yingluck Shinawatra protests that paved the way for the coup.
The fact that Thai diplomats must work closely with the palace, for example in preparing for royal visits overseas, helps forge an indispensable relations between the Foreign Ministry and members of the monarchy. Again, this could explain why many Thai diplomats are also royalists. In each of the royal visits, members of the royal family traditionally grant a photo-taking opportunity to Thai diplomats. In some of the residents of these diplomats, their photos with royalties are often luxuriously framed and placed inside a glass cabinet to flaunt visitors of their intimacy with Thai royal family.
Back to the political reality in Thailand, conservatism in the Foreign Ministry seems to function well under the present political mood. While it has become normal for Thai diplomats to defend the absurdity of the military regime, it continues to perplex foreign dignitaries of how the Thai Foreign Ministry could sometime go too far to legitimize its government even in so doing it would jeopardise the Thai commitments with international organisations.
Thus, the Thai public often comes across the paradox within the Thai foreign policy particularly now that the military is in charge. For example, on the one hand, Thailand vows to actively cooperate with the human rights body at the United Nations. On the other hand, the situation of human rights in Thailand has scarily deteriorated. It could not be more ironic to witness that while the government of Abhisit Vejajiva engaged in deadly crackdowns against protesters in May 2010, Sihasak Puangketkeow served as President of the Human Rights Council at Geneva.
Governments may come and go. But government officials are here to stay. The endorsement of an authoritarian regime, no matter how sound the reason might be, will only erode the reputation of Thai diplomats. This is particularly sad for some in the Thai Foreign Ministry who are willing to serve the benefits of the junta for their own career advancement, despite the fact that they could make themselves a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.