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Thailand's global standing at a low point - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

When the fourth anniversary of Thailand's coup comes to pass later this month, Thailand's foreign relations will be one of the many costs to be counted from the military government. While the Thai administration of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha insists otherwise, Thailand's international standing has sunk to its lowest point. One of the immediate tasks facing the elected government after the poll will be to rectify and restore Thailand's international reputation.

The latest reminder of how regrettable Thai diplomatic positioning has become is the upcoming United States-North Korea summit between President Donald Trump and President Kim Jong-un. As a clutch of locations for this extraordinary and one of a kind head-to-head meeting were floated, Thailand's foreign ministry made a cheesy pitch.

A statement on its website offered thus: "Thailand hopes that the outcomes of this Summit and further efforts, particularly the planned meeting between the President of the United States and the Leader of the DPRK in the near future, will pave the way for the eventual realisation of the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula … Thailand stands ready to contribute towards these shared goals."

It would be a diplomatic coup for any country to host such a spectacular breakthrough meeting between the two erstwhile enemies. Mongolia was also angling to play host. Nor was Singapore uninterested, as its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "regarding speculation that Singapore might host the planned US-North Korean summit, 'we have had no invitations or requests from any of the parties.'" In the event, it appears the Trump-Kim talks will take place at the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea, where Mr Kim on April 27 met his counterpart President Moon Jae-in.

What is telling is Thailand's lack of foreign policy achievements for it to grasp for the US-North Korea summit venue. Everywhere we look from the Asean space and relations with the major powers to issues of rights and freedoms, Thailand's scores during the coup period have been abysmal. As the birthplace and co-founder of Asean, Thailand has abrogated its traditionally astute role as builder and broker of regional peace and stability. For example, as a non-claimant on the South China Sea dispute between China on one hand and the Philippines and Vietnam on the other, Thailand should have made an optimal arbiter and facilitator. Yet its voice on land reclamations and the elusive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea has been faint and vacuous.

Meanwhile, its relations with the major powers became lopsided and too ingratiating to Beijing after the coup. Having gone too far to China, Prime Minister Prayut appeared too gleeful and eager to visit the White House last October, when Thailand had to try to claw back some of its patently smart balance among the major powers. On human rights and fundamental freedoms, Thailand's junta government is a serial violator, having detained hundreds of Thai citizens against their will and intimidated and harassed many others. Yet Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai has insisted at international meetings that all is fine in Thailand's human rights closet, feigning pride and defiance that only showed duplicity and delusion.

Thailand used to be seen as a neutral and impartial refuge for those in need, whether refugees or displaced people fleeing conflict or persecuted individuals seeking sanctuary to fight another day. Now, no one can feel completely safe in Thailand. As Thais can be taken in for detention, foreign seekers of peace, safety and future opportunity may be sent back in short order.

During the past several years, hundreds of Uighurs were deported back to China to an uncertain fate. Now, despite the Prayut government's correct decision to send Cambodian opposition leader Sam Serey to Denmark under international pressure because he has proper diplomatic papers, other Cambodian politicians who have taken refuge from Prime Minister Hun Sen's repressive and violent tentacles no longer feel safe in Thailand.

The most regrettable and simply sad casualty of all this is Thailand's professional and capable corps of diplomats who have had to either kowtow to the military regime for career survival and mobility or simply put up with it to bide time in the hope that a more acceptable government to the international community will soon come into place.

During this military interregnum, Thailand's leading diplomats have had to spend the first two years or so rationalising to the outside world why there had to be a coup, and then much of the last two years having to tell the same foreigners why there is still no election. That the main task of diplomacy has become having to rationalise the coup and defend election delays incurs an incalculable cost to Thailand's foreign relations and international reputation, especially for a country that is world-famous for having navigated a savvy and clever route to stay out of harm's way and other people's wars.

Coup governments were not always like this. In fact, past military governments equipped and empowered foreign policy professionals to ply their wares on the international stage. Under military-authoritarian rule for most of 1947-88, Thai diplomats back then knew how to get things done, from establishing Asean in 1967 to dealing with the Indochina wars in the 1970s, to keeping Thailand as a front-line state safe from communist expansionism in the 1980s. Even the coup of 1991 produced a technocratic cabinet that instrumentally cultivated the Asean Free Trade Area in 1992.

There will be plenty of opportunistic people who will want to insist and pretend that all is satisfactory, even shiny, with Thailand's international standing. But this is not the case if they really look at Thailand's past diplomatic achievements and current constraints. The problem with ongoing Thai foreign relations is that this military regime has stayed in place too long and that it does not want to go away no matter what happens. Instead of moving ahead in its relations with the outside world, Thailand has regressed to a standstill.