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Thai diplomacy with its neighbours during Cold War

Mar 12. 2017
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By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

What were major factors influencing Thai foreign policy towards neighbouring countries during the Cold War? Was the anti-communist ideology a catalyst in the country’s foreign policy formation? How independent was Thai foreign policy during the Cold War?

These were some of the intriguing questions Surapong Jayanama, a veteran diplomat-cum-Southeast Asia scholar, tackled in his newly published five volumes on Thailand’s foreign policy toward neighbouring countries — Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. This is exceptional work by a Thai diplomat who used his well over three decades of experience both in the field and in meeting rooms to systematically analyse Thai diplomatic behaviour during the Cold War towards its immediate neighbours. 

To research for the 1,162-page manuscript, Surapong gained access to the archives of the Foreign Affairs Ministry to scrutinise more than 200 boxes of records of senior Thai officials’ interactions with neighbouring countries spanning nearly five decades. The five-volume book, funded by Thailand Development Research Fund, is the first of its kind on this topic written relying only on a Thai-language primary source. 

This monumental work, even without the author having had similar access to the archives of the Ministry of Defence and related agencies, would certainly be used as a standard reference book in Thailand and abroad for those keen to study Thai foreign policy. Western scholars have long been fascinated by the conduct of Thai foreign policy, which saved the country from colonisation, as well as numerous international crises. There have been hundreds of books written on Thai diplomatic policies, characters and finesse. But none have had any access to Thai-language archives – they mostly depended on foreign-language archives in the US and UK.

During his 37-year diplomatic career, Surapong worked on issues related to neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia and East Asia, especially during the Cambodian conflict (1979-1992). As the third secretary in 1971, he worked in the Southeast Asia Division at the Department of Political Affairs. A decade later, he returned as director dealing with South and West Asia, and then moved to Southeast Asia two years later. After serving as ambassador to Vietnam from 1990-92 and Portugal from 1992-95, he was then spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1995-1997. In 2000, Surapong headed the East Asia Division after a two-year stint as the envoy to Greece. He retired from the ministry in 2005. Under the Abhisit administration, he became an adviser to Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya. He also received four royal decorations including Knight Grand Cordon (Special Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant and the Chakrabarti Mala Medal.

Of the fives volume, the one that dwells on Thai policy toward Vietnam is the longest (526 pages), while the one on Cambodian policy (431 pages) is the most interesting – with revealing information and analysis about the nature of Thai diplomacy and the leadership process behind the scene. These two books taken together with the one on Laos (308 pages) will provide a very comprehensive understanding of Thai diplomatic engagement and strategies with the three former Indochinese countries, which at one time were considered to be Thailand’s number-one security threat. 

The remaining two volumes on Myanmar (189 pages) and Malaysia (158 pages) are equally intriguing, as they provided insights into the minds of Thai policymakers who handled border security issues involving insurgency across borders. Both sides had a high level of mistrust. Reading them side-by-side, readers would immediately understand the current situation of the cross-border insurgency between Thailand and its southern and western neighbours. Fortunately, the Thai-Myanmar border has now become a border of peace and cooperation due to the growing trust between military and civilian leaders. 

It is interesting to note the author is obsessed with empirical facts. He never fails to distinguish content deriving from the archives and his own personal assessments. As such, in references to events in which he took a personal part, he says so. In some events, he was an observer commenting on the substance of those records. He would provide references to specific records of senior officials – both the time and location that discussions took place. He used the word “pen ti prachak” or QED – what was to be demonstrated – frequently to note the indisputable facts or assertions related to certain incidents. 

In his approach, he defined the Cold War period as a global conflict between two opposing camps in a bipolar international system. This overarching context influenced and forced a majority of countries to choose a side for reasons of security and their own survival. And Thailand was no exception. During the Cold war period the foreign policy of Thailand towards its neighbours was both directly and indirectly influenced by various developments and changes, as well as the conflict and cooperation between major powers throughout the 45 years of the Cold War.

His research shed light on impacts the Cold War had on the region. Firstly, he tried to show that the international power structure during the Cold War was a pivotal factor influencing the foreign policy of all neighbouring states. Secondly, he noted that geopolitical considerations, not ideology or high principles, formed the decisive factors in the Thai foreign policy-making process.

Thirdly, his research supported the argument that the international balance of power during the Cold War directly impacted on political and security concerns of all of Thailand’s neighbours. He argued that by using realpolitik as the theoretical framework for studying and evaluating Thai foreign policy towards neighbouring countries, and vice versa, was mainly due to political and security concerns dominantly featured in domestic and international arenas. The power struggle between the two camps, which included conflicts and wars, drove and shaped the international balance of power in their favour. In other words, they struggled and strove for international hegemony.

Surapong drew up four conclusions from this research. Firstly, security and national survival was the primary foreign policy objective of Thailand and its neighbours. Secondly, geopolitics, which is related to the international balance of power, was a constant critical determinant in foreign policy-making and decision-making process. Thirdly, ideology was only one of the important foreign policy tools that fostered international conflict as well as cooperation. Finally, he argued that political, economic and social differences did not pose any barrier in developing friendly relations between countries in the region, as long as their mutual interests coincided. He reiterated that having mutual interests did not require sharing common ideology.

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