Thailand: Coping With The Neighbours

1999

Dr Glen Lewis

On 17 September, Thailand agreed to send 1 500 Thai troops to East Timor as part of the international peace-keeping force. Their leader, Major-General Songkitti Chakkabart, is second in command to Australia's Major-General Peter Cosgrove. Australian media claimed they were there to act as a buffer between the Australian troops and the Indonesian TNI and the pro-integration militia. Thai media supported the initiative, describing it as evidence of the nation's commitment to human rights. Thailand is currently chair of ASEAN and, while Thais are well aware that Indonesia is ASEAN's largest member, the Timor intervention was seen as upgraded support for human rights. Thai involvement was welcomed in Australia, though reports that Australia had promised to subsidise the Thai contingent, and then withdrawn its funding, appeared only in the Thai press. With a cut in the expected per diem rates, the number of Thais eager to join the force was expected to fall.

What was seen as Australian belligerence drew complaints from the Prime Minister Mahathir, Australia's traditional nemesis, especially after it was reported that John Howard had portrayed Australia as a 'United States deputy sheriff' in the region.. Part of Mahathir's criticism was supported by Kavi Chongkittavorn of The Nation, who pointed out the ambiguities in Australia's effort to engage with the region. Kavi cited the Pauline Hanson episode, and queried the wisdom of any 'deputy' role for Australia because of lingering Asian anti-US sentiment over Kosovo and US inaction during the financial crisis.

However Thai attention to Timor has been slight compared to the Australian media's. In international news reporting events close to home will get more coverage than events overseas. This was borne out in early October with the siege of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok by pro-democracy Burmese students and the subsequent exchange of the hostages for the Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Sukhumband Paribatra, who had bravely volunteered himself.

The siege had the qualities of farce and political theatre. Thai food-sellers set up shop outside the embassy blocking press and police access and when the hostages were released some donned pro-democracy Burmese headbands and saluted for the media. Negotiations had proceeded live-to-air over Bangkok's 24 hour traffic radio station, bypassing officials. No-one was injured and the students released Sukhumband after their helicopter flight to the border.

Although Burmese authorities congratulated Thailand for resolving the situation, they have since closed the border. Joint Burmese-Thai fisheries ventures also have been shut down and the 2000 Burmese refugee students in Thailand now face stricter security controls. The episode highlights the continuing failure of the Burmese economy and its military junta's iron control, which remains a stark contrast with a more affluent and democratic Thailand.

Since the inclusion of non-democratic states such as Laos, Cambodia and Burma in ASEAN, its support for regional human rights has been open to question. The Thai foreign Ministry under Surin Pitsuwan has been relatively activist in campaigning for more Thai commitment to human rights issues. Just as Australia now has major problems with Indonesia, the Burmese embassy siege is a reminder to the Thais that one of their powerful neighbours is also often less than friendly.

WATCHPOINT: Will Thailand remain committed to human rights in the region?

 

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