Photo by Sorawut Wongsaranon
An interview with Russ Jalichandra, former Thai ambassador to Mozambique and Kazakhstan and owner of the Facebook page “The Alternative Ambassador” over the coup in Myanmar. How much can we expect ASEAN? What does the Thai government stance means?
Protesters preparing to clash with police before the crackdown on 28 February. (Source: Tachiliek News Agency)
Even as democratic countries all over the world denounced the coup by the Myanmar military, it took 4 days after the coup for Thailand to take a stance which is considered weak. There have been only the opinions of Don Pramudwinai, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, on safeguarding Thai citizens in Myanmar, and of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, which stuck to the line of the ASEAN Secretary-General and can be simply summarized as “we are worried”.
With doubts about this response, Prachatai has interviewed Russ Jalichandra, former Thai ambassador to Mozambique and Kazakhstan and owner of the Facebook page “ทูตนอกแถว - Alternative Ambassador”, who gained popularity from sharing information and opinions related to foreign affairs based on his first-hand experience in order to interpret the diplomatic code of current events.
His answers reveal the complexity that is the diplomatic game, where the deeper we dig, the more we see the Thailand’s diplomatic crisis of faith embedded in Thailand’s crisis of democracy.
The interview was originally published in Thai version on 4 February 2021 in Prachatai.
Prachatai: What things does the state have to take into account before taking a stance towards a coup in another country?
Russ: Frankly speaking, it depends on the interests of each country. Generally, the three main interests are political, security, and economic. But western countries have another set of interests combined with political interests, which we call political ideology. Political ideology is a national interest people often overlook.
Democratic values in western societies are still very much alive and are part of their political interests. When a coup has oc
curred, it is their duty, based on the democratic ideology that they regard as something that is right and good and something that the whole world should uphold, to act when power is seized from an elected civilian government. That is the reason why they come out and take a stance like this.
In addition to politics, they may also have economic reasons, because western countries have invested a lot in Myanmar. If you stage a coup, the economy will certainly plummet. No countries that have staged a coup have improved. These countries stand to lose economically on their business investments. Hence, they have to express their concerns as a matter of course.
All that I have said does not mean that they love Myanmar and democracy that much. It is just that interests are connected in that way.
Now, looking back at our region, even ASEAN itself has not shown a uniform position. Let’s start with the current chair of ASEAN, Brunei, which has the resposibility on a rotation basis.
The statement of Brunei calls for transparent negotiation and consultation and recognition of the interests and fundamental freedoms of the Myanmar people. In other words, this is the collective stance of ASEAN with Brunei as the chair. However, Brunei could not issue such a statement by itself without other countries’ approval.
Why do we have such a problematic stance? Because we have a guilty conscience. We have our own scars. We cannot condemn others. But at the same time, we cannot praise them either. It is a question of security interests and political interests. But are our stance and interests aligned with the interests of the majority of the people? Or is this only in the interests of those in power? This is a matter for each person.
People coming out to show their resistance against the 2014 coup in Thailand.
After all, our government is the product of a coup. Even today, it is difficult to say that this government is truly from the people. While there was an election, the election rules were not fair in the first place.
Although the principle of non-interference is important in ASEAN, as I said, the ASEAN Charter says that each member state must adhere to democratic rules and human rights. So, you can still talk about them since the rules say so. When you do not respect the rules, as a member state, do you dare say anything? If you don’t dare to speak, what does it show? It shows that your government is not a real democracy.
How much importance has Thailand attached to the policies within the ASEAN framework?
Since I have been in government service, ASEAN has always been known as a “cornerstone” of our foreign policy. In fact, Thailand played a very significant role in the foundation of ASEAN, speaking from the perspective that we were the driver that established ASEAN.
ASEAN was established on 8 August 1967, 54 years ago. But before that, there had been negotiations for many years. Finally, it was signed in Bangkok because we were the main advocate. Before us, the Philippines and Indonesia also tried to push for it, but failed. These attempts came in the time of Field Marshal Phibun’s government, but only succeeded during the era of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat with Thanat Khoman as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Until now, ASEAN policy has been our basic policy. It’s just that at the present time, since we had the coup, the Thai position in ASEAN has declined. We have been unable to push or initiate anything constructive. Simply put, ever since you had the coup, you have been an obstacle for ASEAN.
Previously, you were one of the founders and leaders. Recently, the others must have muttered under their breath that we are dragging them down, even a fellow dictatorship like Vietnam. But Vietnam has a different path of evolution. Though not totally accurate, the left-wing and right-wing dictatorships do differ. Left-wing dictatorships rise to power with genuine mass support. Even though they are communist, the majority of the people really support the communist party. They did not emerge with no base of support.
But if you are a far-right, fascist, people don’t support you. You simply steal power. It is a different thing. Saying that being a dictatorship can create growth has nothing to do with it. Dictatorships can also create disaster. Look at Laos for example, that has not grown, or look at Cuba that has collapsed. It has not only collapsed, it doesn’t have any freedom either. That’s even worse.
To conclude, ASEAN, from having Thailand pushing as a leader in its establishment and always playing a vital role in its affairs, now has Thailand as a burden. It really is a burden. Most recently, at the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, why did the United States not come? They usually come every year. Clinton attended the APEC Summit, Obama visited Thailand during Yingluck’s government. Not only did Trump not join the ASEAN Summit, he did not even send the Secretary of State.
We are not in their vision. No matter big or small, this is because our government is a product of a coup. As a result, Thailand’s position in ASEAN has fallen, which has, in turn, pulled ASEAN down with it too. With Myanmar, now there are two such countries.
At the 35th ASEAN Leaders’ Summit hosted by Thailand in 2019, the US sent Robert C. O'Brien, United States National Security Advisor, as the country’s representative to participate in the summit, when normally the President attends.
Why has Thailand’s coup lowered its status in ASEAN?
We have something called ‘dialogues’. Our key dialogue partners include the western countries, the US, the EU, Japan, South Korea, all of whom are important countries that are democratic.
So when they are democracies, they have principles not to interact with illegitimate authoritarian countries, especially extreme right-wing dictatorships that have stubbornly seized government power from the people. For example, in the US, there is a specific law that says you cannot just shake hands with anyone. It is forbidden. Their congress will not approve. It is their standard.
The Prime Minister, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha hosts the 34th ASEAN Summit when Thailand assumed its chairmanship in 2018.
In the past, Myanmar used to be a burden. As we were trying to pull Myanmar into ASEAN, there were longstanding debates whether or not that was a good idea. However, there was this theory that if ASEAN did not accept Myanmar, China would, as it would leave Myanmar no other choice than to go in with China and we would stand to lose our influence over it. So, ASEAN took Myanmar in.
At that time, Myanmar had not had an election yet and still had a military government, which made other countries reluctant to attend ASEAN meetings. Myanmar was a burden and that was the price ASEAN had to pay.
What are the key ASEAN policies that are important for Thailand?
ASEAN is divided into two periods: the first 20 years after 1967 were all about building the foundation of ASEAN. You have to first understand what ASEAN was established for. ASEAN was really a political and security matter but disguised by the claim that it was socio-economic. The driving force was entirely politics and security.
We created it to counterbalance communist expansion because from the late 50s until the 80s, the Cold War period, we had to look for allies in the region in order to not be overly reliant on the US. We alone could not make our voice heard because each country was small. We either had to turn to China, or if not, the Soviet Union. We did not have an identity or options.
But if we expected ASEAN to help with the domestic problems of member states, we would be disappointed because the primary objectives of ASEAN since its establishment have always been external threats, not internal threats. It was set up to oppose communism and whatnot.
Even if later, there was the issue of economic cooperation, nobody was interested in anyone else. Indonesia was under Suharto’s dictatorship. The Philippines was Marcos. Singapore was under Lee Kuan Yew and not fully democratic either. Thailand was haunted by constant change. Nobody had any interest in anyone else. The problems were not internal but threats from outside the region. After Vietnam was brought in, there began to be more economic cooperation.
It is believed that the ASEAN that we created has had reasonable successes. The foundation of ASEAN was the main policy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiated by Thai diplomats, and it has achieved many things.
Apart from external threats, it has helped enhance stability in our region. Once there was stability, economic growth followed. That we became one of the ASEAN tigers was due to the fact that we were relatively stable, which attracted investment as a result. We can see that foreign affairs have an impact on security and economy, even though this was not generally seen.
Today, there is a new era of challenges, because we ourselves are the ones who do not respect the Charter. We cannot point a finger at others because we ourselves are the ones who are violating the Charter, which says we must respect democracy, respect human rights, and respect basic freedoms of the people.
When you are not a good member, you drag the organization down. If you have staged a coup, many developed countries or western dialogue partners are reluctant to associate with you because you go against their principles.
I think ASEAN, with over 50 years of success, is now facing new challenges about how to move forward. If I were Indonesia, I would be quite sick and tired. Singapore would be, too. Singapore, for instance, has shown quite a strong stance because it has invested a lot. In that case, what are they going to do? The country is losing both politically and economically.
Why does the principle of non-interference exist in ASEAN? Have there been attempts to fix or weaken it?
As I said, the evolution of ASEAN came from outside, so in the beginning there were no mechanisms to address this (democracy and human rights). They were not the issues that the ASEAN founders at that time gave importance to because no one was democratic. No one mentioned it.
After several decades this topic was finally discussed because we were expanding membership. We had Vietnam, we had Myanmar. We were thinking that, with more members, it would be increasingly difficult for us to use the principle of consensus where everyone has to approve everything. So, we were trying to look whether majority rule would be enough. I can’t remember but it hasn’t exactly succeeded.
At the moment, I think everyone feels it. However, has it matured enough yet that someone will take it up? Singapore is a small country. It could be Indonesia because it’s a bit big. Even so, there are still real risks that it may break ASEAN apart. But even then, there is also the idea that if ASEAN remains dysfunctional like now, will major countries have to care about ASEAN? It is a challenge for ASEAN.
As it is, both Thailand and Myanmar are holding ASEAN back a great deal, which may push ASEAN to the point where it has to decide what to do with its own future. Does it want to be like this? If it wants that, as long as there is no real return of power to the people, this can be a burden that prevents ASEAN from going anywhere.
As long as it stays like this, it will never be an organization that is truly accepted. It may be worse than a paper tiger, it may be a torn paper tiger. After all of its successes in creating stability in the region, generating growth, and carrying us through so far, in the end we ruin it ourselves. Thailand, as a founder, itself will destroy it.
In the past, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has acted as a front line of defense for the government, when the situation is undemocratic or there are human rights violations. In principle, can diplomats have a greater role in setting foreign policy?
Yes, if you dare. Do you dare? (laughs)
Can you give examples of daring acts?
Before, when we had excellent diplomats like Anand Panyarachun as permanent secretary, he went against the military. We were opening diplomatic relations with communist China, but at that time the military was close to the US, not with China like today.
We (the Ministry) were the ones who opened this up, but they (the military) were not pleased. But we believed that it was in the best interests of the country because we had to create a balance of power and not just follow the US. We had to be friendly with every country.
China is a big country and it also affected our security. Because don’t forget that friendship with China in the end also curtailed the movement of the Communist Party of Thailand in turn. And we also won the war. At the same time, China played an important part in making sure Vietnamese did not dare invade Thailand during the Vietnam War. This is foreign policy that we created for security.
But at the time, the military did not know why we did what we did. They thought we were staying aloof to make friends with the communists. In the end, after another coup, they kicked Anand out of this permanent secretary’s chair to become ambassador to Germany. He resigned afterwards. It looked like he was punished by being demoted.
The question is if you dare to protect our interests like this, today would you dare do it? That’s all it is. Would you dare to tell the government, in your position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in your position as the window of the country that is in contact with other countries, can you say that the things the government is doing are really in the people’s interests?
Or do you dare tell the government in all honesty what other countries in the world think about Thailand? Or will you make up a nice story that other countries don’t really mind and they all admire us? This is your personal courage or honour. It depends on the person.
Are democracy and human rights really important for the image of Thailand? Thailand does not seem to take these matters seriously.
I think we don’t have to look far. Myanmar is the most obvious example. 20-30 years ago, Myanmar could not care less about the world and what the world would do. I’m not interested. I will be ignorant about this.
Myanmar went from a rich country with vast resources 60 years ago that was able to export the most rice in the world, even more than Thailand, to later being just a country that could produce rice only for domestic consumption.
It was their luck that they didn’t starve. From being the biggest exporter of rice in the world, they ran the country like that. They didn’t care. Whatever anyone thought, they didn’t care, until the entire country was wrecked. Eventually, they couldn’t stand it and had elections giving back power to the people. But they hand over power and less than 10 years later, they take it back again.
You can say you don’t care, and you can not care, but the country will never thrive. There is no way you can do things like this. You can violate human rights from morning to night and not care about the world, take no interest. But as long as you take no interest, the country will never thrive.
You are not China. Don’t come and say that China can do it. You have no vision. Your source of power is different from theirs. The context is different. You were in the wrong from the start. You are not the communist party. You do not come from a party that is based on real support from the masses.
You do not have an ideology. Communism is one kind of ideology, you know. But fascism is not. Fascism is a way of stealing power for your own benefit. So if you come and claim that you can be a dictator and prosper like China, you are immeasurably mistaken. You are mistaken since the very beginning. You cannot make a claim like that.
This means that the pressure certainly had an effect, though we may not feel it at the moment.
Definitely. There is definitely an effect. It is like when South Africa was pressured by the international community and eventually allowed an election, when Nelson Mandela came in. They had been fighting for this for decades. But these things don’t come about in a day.
People will say, oh, the pressure has no effect. It has an effect but sooner or later. People say one year has gone by, two years have gone by, we don’t see anything. We are talking about decades here. But the longer it goes, the worse it just gets for the country.
Does international pressure exist? We can see from history, that one of the acheivements of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs was when Vietnam invaded Cambodia (1978). Invading Cambodia and taking over clearly violated international law. Vietnam said it went in to help Cambodia, the same old pretext.
We as ASEAN said that was not the case. It was a clear invasion of another country. As one of the ASEAN leaders, we were able to persuade the international community that what Vietnam did was wrong. Even though Vietnam was partly backed by Russia, most countries did not agree with it. What followed was pressure for a boycott of Vietnam.
But the problem was how to sustain the momentum. In the past, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quite good at that. We were able to lobby for a boycott of Vietnam every year, and the international community was on our side until we were able to get Vietnam to finally withdraw from Cambodia.
Then came the ‘Na Chat’ [Chatchai Choonhavan] period when turning battlefields into marketplaces was our vision. Vietnam was very pleased and it created stability. At that time ASEAN was booming but now we are the bad boys. We are a burden on ASEAN.
A boycott will be ineffective if the state can find another source of support, right?
Certainly. Back then, Vietnam had to depend on Russia. Suppose we were to be boycotted by the world, we would look to China. Suppose that was one possibility. But ask if China has ever given anyone anything for free, without wanting any compnesation? You have to pay.
They give nothing for free. And where does the money that you pay to China come from? It comes from you, from me, from the people, from our country. You have leased land to China for 99 years. Is that selling the country or not? This is the price that you will have to pay, and the cost will be expensive because you have no bargaining power.
You cannot bargain with anyone because no one wants to be friends with you. If you are so shameless that you go to them, they are going to know that you are cornered. The more they know you have nowhere to go, the more they will try to squeeze you.
Like in business, if you could not sell to anyone and bring out your rice, China or anyone else that buys from you knows you have nowhere else to go. Will they give you a good price? Or will they fleece you?