Thailand: Australia And East Timor In The Thai Media

1999

Chalinee Hirano

The violence that broke out in East Timor after the 30 August independence referendum drew much attention in the Thai media. Local coverage generally approached the East Timor's problems from two perspectives: first, by looking at how the international community, particularly the UN and Australia would respond; and second, by assessing how Thailand, as this year's Chairman of ASEAN would deal with Indonesia.

Concerning the international response, some Thai local media were quite suspicious of the attempts of the 'West' to stop the violence in Timor. If East Timor, as they argued, had comprised a Muslim majority, the 'West' would not have paid any attention. Some thought that Australia wanted to play the hero, while some said it just wanted to pay back the Timorese people. The rationale for this was that Australia was the only country that recognized the 1975 Indonesian occupation of the territory, which led to many atrocities being committed on the Timorese people. Some argued that Australia's intentions were not motivated by humanitarian concerns. Rather, economic priorities associated with oil and gas exploitation in the Timor Sea were the real driving force. Some saw Australia as attempting to build a continental bridge to bring it closer to other Asian nations. This suspicion grew stronger after publication of the 'Howard Doctrine' which suggested a new Australian role as the Deputy of the United States in the region.

Subsequently, news coverage shifted to Thai responses. When Thailand was asked by the UN and Australia to assume a deputy leadership role of the multinational force, Prime Minister Chuan immediately agreed to the request. Some Thai foreign affairs media commentators suggested that Thailand should not be lured into collusion with the 'West', which was using Australia as a decoy to break up with Indonesia. Instead, Thailand, as a Chairman of ASEAN, should utilize 'flexible engagement', as espoused by the current Foreign Minister, to seek a consensus among ASEAN members.

A number of Thai high-ranking military officers strongly opposed what was seen as a Chuan's hasty 'pro-Western' foreign policy. Soon thereafter, reports surfaced of anonymous letters criticising Chuan's Timor policy circulating in Army circles. The media agenda immediately shifted to questions raised in these letters concerning who was to foot the bill for the Thai operations in the context of the country's economic crisis.

Due to the fluid nature of the local media, such criticism receded quickly in early November. The central media focus became the sending of about 1,500 troops to Timor. However, the 6 November Australian referendum, in which the Australian voters chose to maintain the Queen as their head of state, put Australia back in the spotlight. Local media criticised the result, suggesting that it reflects the ambiguity of Australian foreign policy, which, on one hand, proclaims multiculturalism and its role in Asia, but, on the other hand, does not want to upset its status quo nor lose its ties to the 'West'.

WATCHPOINT: As long as Australia's regional stance remains ambiguous, it will continue to attract criticism in the Thai media.

 

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