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New great game in mainland Southeast Asia

New great game in mainland Southeast Asia

After more than a year in office with an overwhelming electoral mandate, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has parlayed her solidifying domestic standing for growing international credibility.

Under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s leadership,Thai-Cambodian relations have regained relative calm and stability.

While her government's foreign policy directions are still inchoate and tentative, Ms Yingluck's priority on mending next-door relationships is clear. Alongside Myanmar's political transition and economic reforms, Thailand's refocus on immediate neighbours has placed a renewed and unprecedented spotlight on mainland Southeast Asia as a beckoning sub-region coming into its own, straddling China and the Indian Subcontinent with all major powers and global interests in the chase for its immense potential and prospects.

Ms Yingluck's first several months in office were largely written off as her government was consumed by the flood crisis. When Thailand's worst deluge in decades subsided by January, the Yingluck government began to implement its raft of campaign pledges in earnest. These mainly pandered to the domestic electoral base, such as a hike in the daily minimum wage, rice price guarantees, and rebates for first-time purchases of homes and cars.

While perennial critics of Ms Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, labelled these and other "populist" policies as fiscal profligacy, supporters who voted her and Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party to a majority victory on 3 July 2011 cheered on. Largely absent from the cut-and-thrust of Thai politics in Ms Yingluck's first year has been foreign relations.

As her domestic agenda went into motion, Ms Yingluck went abroad more often. Her role in foreign affairs became prominent because Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul is seen more as Thaksin's trusted lieutenant than Thailand's chief diplomat. For the same reason, senior diplomats at Thailand's Foreign Ministry were more salient in setting policy tone and content. The multifaceted and multilayered diplomacy of Ms Yingluck's foreign policy apparatus set out to restore key relationships with immediate neighbours, particularly Cambodia and Myanmar. Ms Yingluck visited both countries early in her administration, Phnom Penh in September 2011 and Yangon the following December, and has revisited both countries since.

To be sure, Cambodia was Thailand's most pressing foreign policy priority. The Preah Vihear temple controversy erupted in 2008 under the administration of Samak Sundaravej, Ms Yingluck's predecessor and Thaksin's then-proxy. Thai-Cambodian relations reached a nadir in 2009-11 under the Democrat Party-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. The anti-Thaksin yellow shirts and Mr Abhisit's fiery foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, had been instrumental in the attack against Samak's government for allowing Cambodia's listing of Preah Vihear as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia also contributed to the bilateral controversy and complications by taking Thaksin's side. In 2011 prior to the election, both sides engaged in military skirmishes in the contested 4.6-square-kilometre land area where the Preah Vihear temple is located, claiming more than two dozen lives, scores of injuries, and thousands of displaced bystanders. It was the worst regional conflict since Asean's formation 45 years ago.

Under Ms Yingluck's helm in view of the amity between Thaksin and Hun Sen, the Thai-Cambodian front has regained calm and stability. The bilateral spat has been depoliticised, and the military presence on both sides has been scaled back dramatically. The next potential flashpoint is the International Court of Justice's clarification of its 1962 ruling (which awarded the temple but not the adjoining land to Cambodia), a case Cambodia submitted during Mr Abhisit's tenure. If the contested area is adjudicated in Cambodia's favour, the anti-Thaksin columns are likely to go on the march again. However, Thailand's ties with Cambodia appear cordial as long as the Thaksin camp is ensconced in power.

Thailand's western front provides some contrast. The Democrat-led government did not preside over bilateral turmoil and mayhem but went along with Myanmar's opening and reforms following the November 2010 elections. That Ms Yingluck's government has followed suit and broadened this bilateral partnership is attributable to Myanmar's vital role in Thailand's foreseeable economic development. Relations with Myanmar are remarkably non-partisan in deeply polarised Thailand. Thai dependence on Myanmar runs the gamut from migrant worker and natural gas imports to drugs suppression. Ms Yingluck has continued and solidified the multibillion-dollar development of the Dawei deep sea port megaproject. The Thai government has effectively assumed a lead role in project financing, design and development of Dawei concession, which was earlier awarded to Italian-Thai Development, a heavyweight in the Thai construction industry. Myanmar increasingly provides an assortment of lifelines for future Thai economic development. Irrespective of Thailand's colour-coded political divide, whichever side assumes power is unlikely to put Thailand's most vital bilateral relationship at risk.

Laos and Malaysia to a lesser extent are naturally crucial in Thailand's foreign policy outlook but they have not figured as central as Cambodia and Myanmar. Laos exports substantial hydropower to Thailand and is in the process of building the controversial Xayaburi dam which is opposed by myriad rights and environmentalist groups.

Engrossed in its own growing political tensions, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok have maintained stable relations. Thailand appears in need of Malaysian assistance in the ultimate settlement of the Malay-Muslim insurgency in its southernmost provinces.

Mainland Southeast Asia, a sub-regional market of 300 million consumers when southern China and Vietnam are included, connects Northeast, South and Southeast Asia and more than 3 billion people in all, has thus entered an unprecedented period of promise and expectation, revolving around Myanmar's budding transformation under the leadership of President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Thailand's restored next-door ties.

The ongoing infrastructure development in the mainland is increasingly connecting the land routes in all directions, east-west and north-south. Borders erected during colonial times matter decreasingly as the flows and movements of goods, people, trade, investment, and overall development criss-cross the scene.

It is a sub-region being wooed, as in the Central Asian great game of the 19th century, by China as the resident superpower and the United States with its staying power, with Japan heavily invested and India as a cradle of civilisation.

Myanmar may be where China meets India but Myanmar-Thailand form the strategic corridor that could pivot and mould the shape of things to come in the mainland with broader repercussions for the entire Asian landmass.

Despite the political battles to come, Thailand's government now and of the near future should be mindful of maps. Geography has been Thailand's destiny in the past as it will be in the future.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

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