Did foreign diplomats really praise Thai junta reforms?

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 21, 2015

The Thai junta’s foreign minister claims that his military government is getting more and more approval from the international community. But is there any truth to it?

One of the most difficult challenges for Thailand’s military government in its attempts to legitimize last year’s coup and the ongoing authoritarian rule is to get any international approval. As we have previously reported before, condemnations from abroad came in quickly after the coup, as did some (in hindsight more symbolical) sanctions by the West. But nothing much has happened since. While diplomatic relations with many countries – especially with the United States and the countries of the European Union – remain cold, any minimal engagement from elsewhere is being warmly received by the junta.

In other words: Anytime a foreign dignitary meets with representatives of the Thai military junta (even if it’s just a courtesy handshake), it will be positively spun by the latter as a sign of international approval of the regime. And that’s exactly what has happened recently.

The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) published a press release last Thursday about the meeting of four foreign ambassadors with former Supreme Commander and current Thai junta Foreign Minister (as well as one of a few deputy prime ministers) General Thanasak Patimaprakorn.

Here’s how the state-owned media organization MCOT repeated rehashed rewrote reported it:

Russian ambassador to Thailand Kirill Barsky said he welcomed the emphasis on reform and was pleased with results of the official visit to Thailand of Russian Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov last Friday. He said that it was agreed to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Thai-Russian diplomatic relations beginning next year. The anniversary falls in 2017. (…)

Paul Robilliard, Australian ambassador, said he followed Thai politics and admired the Thai government for allowing all parties to have their say in national reform. Thailand is at the center of Southeast Asia and his country’s most important trading partner. (…)

Gen Tanasak quoted Swiss ambassador Christine Burgener as praising the government for listening to all parties on national reform. She promised that Switzerland was ready to share its experience in election organisation and suppressing corruption with Thailand.

Canadian ambassador Philip Calvert said that Thailand had progressed in its reform as planned in the government’s reform roadmap, Gen Tanasak said. Ambassador Calvert hoped Thailand would successfully introduce true democracy.

Ambassadors praise Thailand for implementing national reform roadmap“, MCOT, January 15, 2015

By the looks of it, it all sounds pretty good for the Thai junta and it seems that the four foreign ambassadors are full of praise of the Thai military government’s work, right? Well, not quite if you ask the foreign embassies and ambassadors themselves.

Let’s start off with the Russian ambassador Kirill Barsky, who supposedly said he “welcomed” the junta’s “emphasis on reform,” which is not mentioned at all in the press release from the Russian Embassy in Bangkok. While it can be argued that it wasn’t important enough to include that in the statement, it seems more oddly baffling that it wasn’t even mentioned in the Thai MFA’s press release – probably also because it wasn’t deemed important enough.

Next is the Australian ambassador Paul Robilliard, who took up the post just in last October, but already allegedly “admires the Thai government for allowing all parties to have their say in national reform,” which is far from the truth as we have previously reported that while the military junta claims it would listen to all sides for input, the “reform” process is ultimately an exclusive affair, as it is left in the hands of a few hand-picked men – not to mention that a free press currently doesn’t exist and open dissent is not tolerated, an ongoing martial law ensures that.

Asian Correspondent asked Mr. Robilliard on Twitter if he was actually quoted correctly. Here’s his reply:

Again, what was emphasized by the Thai MFA is in contrast to the ambassador’s words.

And finally*, let’s look at Canadian Ambassador Philip Calvert, who pointed us to a statement of the Canadian Embassy on Facebook for comparison:

H.E. Philip Calvert, Ambassador of Canada to the Kingdom of Thailand, met with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tanasak Patimapragorn on January 14, 2015 to discuss the multi-faceted bilateral relationship between Canada and Thailand, recent developments in Thailand and the ASEAN region.

Ambassador Calvert underlined Canada’s expectation that the Thai military return Thailand to civilian and democratic government as soon as possible through free and fair elections, and in accordance with the Roadmap; that the political reform process be transparent and inclusive and that it reflect the will of the majority; and urged Thai authorities to meet Thailand’s international human rights obligations.

Facebook post of the Embassy of Canada to Thailand, January 16, 2015

Judging by the contents and the tone, you might get the impression Mr. Calvert attended an entirely different meeting than the Thai Foreign Minister. Granted, the art of international diplomacy is a very delicate one that relies heavily on the choice of words (or in this case entire passages), among other factors.

So far, many Western countries are treating the authoritarian military government with caution, yet maintain some degree of engagement. A diplomatic source told Asian Correspondent last October that while this is the best way to “pressure the government on certain issues,” many within the diplomatic community are “aware what impressions this might give.”

Indeed, with the junta’s almost desperate search for international legitimization in mind (and so far only finding it in countries like Cambodia and Burma – and apparently North Korea) it is grasping for every little straw and is thankful for every photo-op to claim as evidence – regardless of whom they’re shaking hands with.

Or how else could Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn make one of the most spectacularly baffling claims by the junta last year, when he said that “out of 6bn people on this world [!], 4.7bn people already support [the junta] 100 per cent” and thus “of all the countries worldwide, 85 per cent are confident [with us]”?!

*Note: Since there was no public statement available at the time of writing, Asian Correspondent has reached out to the Swiss Embassy in Bangkok for one. It has not replied as of now, but we will update this post accordingly.

UPDATE [January 20, 2015]: The Swiss Embassy in Bangkok replied after an inquiry by Asian Correspondent as following:

The Ambassador did underline Switzerland’s readiness to support the Thai authorities on various issues the current government is tackling in the current transition phase, for example on anti-corruption, governance and human rights issues. She encouraged to continue reconciliation efforts in parallel with the reform process and said she was pleased to see that these efforts developed into a more inclusive approach.

Several other issues were discussed where Switzerland stands ready to provide expertise.

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