Thai diplomacy in low gear amid crisis

MOTORCADES were a common sight in Bangkok before protests broke out last October. In the preceding 12 months, a long list of political leaders came to town: United States President Barack Obama, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and French Premier Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Thailand basked in the international limelight as its Premier Yingluck Shinawatra jetted around the globe to renew old friendships and nurture new ties.

These days, the regal compound of the Government House where the guard of honour lined up to greet dignitaries lies empty. The wide avenues around it are occupied by protesters determined to cripple government functions and force Ms Yingluck out.

Officials of Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs work from home, meet in hotels and communicate via e-mail or Line instant messaging.

Senior staff return to the ministry building, but keep a low profile so as not to provoke anti-government mobs into chaining their gates up again.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who made a trip to China, South Korea, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates last week, skipped Thailand, the US' "oldest ally in Asia". Mr Obama will do the same when he flies to Asia in April.

When Ms Yingluck dissolved Parliament last December, her government began operating in a caretaker capacity and lost the power to make foreign policy decisions.

But it is also fighting for its survival. Protesters are blocking roads, forcing civil servants out of ministry buildings and obstructing elections that would give Ms Yingluck's Puea Thai party a fresh mandate to rule.

With polling re-runs yet to be confirmed, and police fearful of sparking violent confrontations that would invite military intervention, Ms Yingluck is being hounded out of every temporary office. Caretaker foreign minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul's hands are full with security operations.

In their absence, Thai diplomats are trying their best to maintain ties sweetened during the stable first two years of Puea Thai's rule.

Mr Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary for foreign affairs, looks back on the past two years with a hint of pride. "In terms of foreign policy, over the past two years, we have been able to put Thailand back on the radar," he told The Straits Times.

The country, which sits in the middle of one of the fast developing regions in the world, plunged into political turmoil for a good five years after then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms Yingluck's brother, was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

It was also entangled in a bitter and deadly dispute with neighbouring Cambodia over ownership of the area around the ancient Preah Vihear temple.

But Thai overtures in the region after 2011 put diplomatic ties on "a solid footing", enough to keep the peace while the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Cambodia last year.

Thailand, said Mr Sihasak, has been fortunate enough not to have to grapple with any ministerial-level decision since the political crisis started last October. But it is not clear how long it can last, as the alliance of urban middle class, old money and royalists press on with their efforts to dislodge a prime minister who has so far refused to resign.

The Japanese ambassador to Thailand, Mr Shigekazu Sato, said: "Thailand is a major country in ASEAN, and we strongly hope it will continue to play this important roleā€¦ I hope the situation will get back to normal soon."

Given the current tension over the South China Sea, Mr Sihasak is determined to have Thailand maintain an active role as ASEAN's liaison with China.

"We will continue to be active... in coordinating ASEAN-China dialogue," he said.

Thailand will go ahead with plans to host an ASEAN-China meeting in April to discuss a code of conduct aimed at managing tensions caused by overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

But the fate of the ministerial meeting after that is still up in the air.

"It all depends on the political situation," he said.

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