Thursday, November 26, 2009

Saving face or restoring diplomatic relationship, The Abhisit Administration's juggling acts

During the past two decades, former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has always been only a phone-call away from leaders of neighbouring countries. In the midst of the ongoing diplomatic tension with Cambodia, his fence-mending clout could have come in handy had he not been part of the problem himself.

The retired general is now sitting back and watching the government run into a brick wall of diplomacy in dealing with Phnom Penh.

Gen Chavalit, the government's natural enemy through his position as opposition Peau Thai Party chairman, came under fire for igniting the diplomatic row with Phnom Penh after his return from a working visit to that country which happened shortly after he was appointed Puea Thai chairman.

Many watchers believe the former army chief is manoeuvring to stir up friction with neighbouring countries in an effort to isolate Thailand.

Gen Chavalit's personal ties with national leaders extend to virtually every neighbouring country and beyond. He is also said to be on friendly terms with the Chinese leaders as well.

Much of the relationship was cultivated when he was army chief, defence minister or as the prime minister. Gen Chavalit may have been in and out of the domestic political scene, but he has never given up nurturing his friendships through personal visits to those countries.

Gen Chavalit is visionary in the sense that he has groomed the next "public diplomat" - Gen Vichit Yathip. The former deputy army chief is not dubbed the "hand that unites in all directions" for nothing.

Gen Vichit has been asked by past governments and the army to help coordinate with leaders of respective countries when any bilateral impasse needed breaking. But in the current spat with Cambodia, Gen Vichit is staying put because he is on Gen Chavalit's side, which makes it awkward for the government to solicit his help.

The Abhisit government and the army, however, are out of options because they have no fence menders of their own. The army in particular has groomed no one to promote neighbourly relations. All the skilled diplomacy minders belong to the Chavalit camp, which is partly the reason why the government's negotiations with Phnom Penh over the arrest of Sivarak Chotipong - the Thai engineer charged with rifling the flight plan of convicted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra during his Nov 10-14 visit to Cambodia - have got nowhere.

There is not much hope left in the formal diplomatic channel after the two countries recalled their ambassadors following the row. The army attache, being a colonel, is too junior for the task of attaining a negotiation breakthrough.

Even Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who had the chance to enjoy a home-cooked meal at Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's residence some months back, could not achieve much. In fact, Mr Suthep's meeting with Mr Hun Sen was reportedly made possible thanks to Gen Vichit's informal coordination. Even Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon phoned Gen Vichit when he needed a coordinator in border affairs.

But Mr Suthep has factored out Gen Vichit in the Thai-Cambodian relations crisis for the obvious reason.

"They don't want me to help because they view me as being in Gen Chavalit's camp. They don't want to be seen as giving credit to Gen Chavalit," Gen Vichit said. "But the country's image is at stake. If they asked, I would be obliged. But they haven't. The government has not requested any help from me," he added.

A source said Gen Chavalit is keeping a watch on the efforts of the government and the Foreign Ministry in their handling of the diplomatic tension.

Gen Chavalit is known to have set a clear line of succession for the diplomacy minders. Apart from Gen Vichit, there is army specialist Lt Gen Surawat Butwong who used to provide an escort for Hun Sen back when Thailand was lending assistance in the talks between warring factions in Cambodia several decades ago.

Although Lt Gen Surawat is no match for Gen Vichit's coordination prowess, he is building up connections not only in Cambodia, but in Malaysia and Burma. Other promising coordinators include Lt Gen Nipat Thonglek, head of the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters' Border Affairs Directorate. A protege of former army chief Chetha Thanajaro, he is gradually establishing a firm foothold in the relations with Cambodia and Burma where he had often represented Gen Chetha in discussing border matters, most notably one that led to the release of hundreds of Thais detained in Burma's notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon.

Gen Chetha and former Burmese strongman Khin Nyunt were practically sworn brothers. After Gen Khin Nyunt fell from power in late 2004, Gen Chetha's role in Burmese relations lessened.

Down South, Maj Gen Akkanit Muensawat, another army specialist, is marked by the army to be a "connector" with Malaysia whose task is to follow up on insurgency suppression operations.

But none of the younger generals can claim to have Gen Chavalit's or Gen Vichit's privilege of having Hun Sen on a speed dial.

Realising the power of informal networking, army chief Anupong Paojinda is forging a similar bond with the neighbours, starting with Cambodia. He is reported to be getting on with Cambodia's deputy supreme commander Gen Chea Dara, who is close to Hun Sen.

Many Thai military leaders have preferred to go through Cambodia's Defence Minister Tea Banh but since some key decisions were off-limits to the minister, Gen Anupong has dropped Gen Chea Dara a line.

Royal Thai Armed Forces commander Gen Songkitti Jakrabatra is also pairing up with his Cambodian counterpart Gen Poul Sareoun. But like the Anupong-Chia connection, they will find the friendship needs time to mature and their relations are "too young" to be of any substantive help to the country.

The top brass have learned that when the official channel of diplomacy becomes restrictive, the "short cut" could provide an answer. However, a growing number of observers are waiting to see if or when Gen Chavalit will "pop the question" to Hun Sen. They are interested to know if Hun Sen would agree to release the arrested Thai engineer if Gen Chavalit were to ask for such a favour.

"Gen Chavalit has talked with Hun Sen. But for now, the engineer will have to be patient. Gen Chavalit would like to see how well the government and the Foreign Ministry can fix the problem because they started it all," said Lt Gen Pirat Sawamiwat, Gen Chavalit's aide.

It may be true that the deteriorating friendship with Cambodia can be traced to Hun Sen's displeasure with Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya. Mr Kasit pilloried the Cambodian prime minister over the Preah Vihear border dispute when he was speaking at the People's Alliance for Democracy gathering last year. The ties between the two countries have also soured because Hun Sen and Thaksin are "eternal friends".

But there is nothing preventing Gen Chavalit from putting his personal relations with the neighbours to constructive use. It would earn him far greater esteem than harnessing them to his political advantage and ending up being criticised for consorting with the enemy.

Wassana Nanuam reports on military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

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