Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Shinawatras and the global diplomatic merry-go-round

Aug 07. 2018
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By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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You don’t need a doctorate to think up the most effective test question for future students of diplomacy – you only need to be Thai. Mine is this: “As the foreign minister of another country, how would you handle the Shinawatra situation if Thailand requested Thaksin’s or Yingluck’s extradition?”

Whoever offers the best answer gets a pass and will be groomed to become a real ambassador or foreign minister. Don’t laugh. I don’t think America’s secretary of state or Britain’s foreign secretary knows best how to handle the predicament.

By the time some university administrators embrace my suggestion, the Shinawatra situation will have become even stickier. Panthongtae’s son or grandson could be in courageous, self-imposed exile or, some may say, running cowardly away from a guilty verdict in Thailand. By then, the clan may have already bought a Series A football club or had a nominee on the La Liga board. Or they may have invested heavily in Germany.

Benvenuto alla festa. Bienvenigo a la fiesta. Willkommen zur party. Welcome to the party.

Britain is getting good at it. (Or some may describe the country as incredibly lucky.) In the latest close call regarding the Shinawatras, London has navigated its way past a Thai extradition request for Yingluck. It bought enough time to enable her to fly to Dubai, where there will be no extradition problem with Thailand.

This does not mean, though, that others handling runaway Shinawatras should follow the British textbook. The way London has been grappling with the problem is the same as evacuating people from a rumbling volcano because there’s no better way to deal with the situation.

What if Yingluck had said, “I’m staying in England because I love it here”? What if she had threatened to go public and accuse the British government of “kowtowing to the Thai military junta”? That’s an erupting volcano there, with countless people at its base.

The “wanted” Shinawatras have been popping up here and there, with the United States, Britain, Hong Kong and Singapore apparently their preferred places to sojourn. Thaksin seems to like Russia, too, but it’s a country unconcerned about human rights, so his presence would unlikely become a bombshell.

Japan and France were given a bit of a scare years ago. Montenegro’s name used to be mentioned often. Cambodia’s problems with Thailand escalated to the highest level thanks to Thaksin and lesser fugitives wearing red shirts. The Thai-Cambodian tension has subsided for now, but the volcano is simply dormant.

So far, Britain has had the toughest experience among the Western countries. London allowed Thaksin to buy one of the country’s biggest football clubs, then kicked him out and then allowed him back in. According to British diplomats in Bangkok a few years ago, Thaksin’s Ratchadapisek land scoop, for which he was convicted, did not amount to a crime worthy of extradition.

Yingluck was convicted of malfeasance related to corruption in her government’s rice-pledging scheme. Some say her case was highly politicised, so she deserves the status of a politically persecuted person. Others say she was found guilty in a constitutional process that would not have been initiated had she still been in power.

Another foreign diplomat admitted some time ago that diplomatic slipperiness regarding Thaksin should be forgiven. “What else are we supposed to do?” he asked, pointing out that the Shinawatras were in power one day and their enemies the next. One day a passport was revoked and the next day it was restored.

Britain is in deep trouble either way. Human rights afford a nice diplomatic basis, but lurking under the surface are powerful, non-ideological benefits. The US has oil and strategic interests to worry about and Britain has been backing its hyper-store business to the hilt. The European Union has been supporting the Shinawatras, but it will listen to what Washington and London have to say.

To complicate matters further, Russia and China are apparently offering the Thai military junta shoulders to cry on. So walking a diplomatic tightrope is more than a cliché when it comes to the West coping with Thailand.

Next year’s election will most likely prolong the vicious cycle. If the Shinawatras regain power, even by remote control from outside Thailand, their extradition worries will fade, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the volcano won’t start rumbling again, and soon. We’ve had two convictions to begin with and Panthongtae is hanging by a thread.

Diplomacy, as the old joke goes, is the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock. Here’s a new one, based on a sure-fire diplomatic trend of the future, where countries have to gently chase off the Shinawatras and treat be nice to any Thai military government: 

Diplomacy is the art of using a rock while convincing the doggie that it’s still cute. 

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