Monday, July 11, 2011

The World View of Yingluck Shinawatra

Pongphisoot Busbarat
July 11, 2011


Thailand is celebrating a newly elected female prime minister for the first time in its history.
Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai Party are forming a coalition government, although it may take up to a month to see the new makeup of the ministries and the coalition’s policies. Pheu Thai will likely have to give up chairs in several ministries, but will definitely reserve the security and foreign affairs ministries. During press conferences to announce her coalition parties on Monday, Yingluck said restoring Thailand’s foreign relations would be among her government’s immediate priorities.

Although Yingluck has not offered much comment on her foreign policy agenda, its orientation can be deduced from the policy outline she released before the election, “Thailand Vision 2020.” This shows that the new government will likely have an outward-oriented policy emphasizing Thailand’s leading role in the international arena. It reinvigorates Thailand’s desire to be a regional hub for many activities, such as aviation, finance, health services and food production.

This policy vision is arguably identical to the foreign policy of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, during his premiership. He promoted Thailand’s role in the region through the creation of a dual strategy based on both regional forums and a web of bilateral trade agreements. Yingluck underscored that “there is a lot of hard work ahead,” when the preliminary election results suggested her party had gained a majority.

At the regional level, Yingluck will need to restore Thailand’s role in Asean and beyond. If Thaksin’s ideas are influential in Yingluck’s foreign policy formulation, one thing we can expect from her government is attempts by Thailand to revive its influence in regional affairs. Its own version of regional and sub-regional initiatives, such as ACD, ACMECS and BIMSTEC, will be renewed. Thailand may also try to resume its active role in Asean, which has diminished since the coup in 2006. Such a move will only be possible if Thailand’s problems with Cambodia are resolved amicably and its attachment to democratic principles at home is proved sustainable.

It is still not clear how Yingluck will fix Thai-Cambodian relations. There is a good chance she may reverse some of the decisions of her predecessor, Abhisit Vejjajiva, particularly Thailand’s withdrawal from Unesco’s World Heritage Committee. She may take the previous position of supporting joint management of the Preah Vihear Temple. Her main challenge is to find a way to resume bilateral talks with Cambodia on border management issues without risking another prolonged protest from conservative groups.

We may see more ultranationalist rallies against Yingluck’s policy over this issue, which could grow as other parties with their own grievances join. There are people, especially in Bangkok and the southern provinces, who do not like the Red Shirt and Pheu Thai victory. They are ready to join any protest if the campaign sounds legitimate, and the territory integrity issue is always a legitimate one.

As prime minister, Yingluck could use her position to restore Thailand’s standing as a proponent of democracy in the region. However, she will face other complications in Thailand’s ties with Burma. While the new Burmese government is “democratically elected,” the influence of the military in politics is evident. Dealings with the regime there may follow a similar pattern to what has been done in the past, but be more legitimate in many aspects.

No matter what, Yingluck cannot afford to focus only on reaching economic deals with Burma, as her predecessors did with the junta, and pay no attention to its human rights. Her position on this issue is unclear. As a female prime minister, she will be expected to express more sympathy for human rights issues by rights groups and activists, including the matter of refugees along the Thai-Burmese border. She may also be called on to lend her moral support for Aung San Suu Kyi, which could damage Thai-Burmese relations.

Given the United States’ re-engagement with regional democratic development, Thailand’s democratic stability will be of interest to it. As Thailand is the second largest economy in Southeast Asia and a long-time US ally, the United States will need to keep Thailand on track. The US approach to Thai politics since the 2006 coup has been viewed as relying on an interventionist approach, such as in the case of a meeting between the US assistant secretary of state and Red Shirt leaders during the political protests in May 2010. Yingluck’s campaign for democracy will inevitably attract US involvement in Thailand’s democratic consolidation.

Yingluck’s vision for Thailand may, at the same time, inevitably further anchor Beijing’s influence in the country and the region. She wants to achieve an improvement in Thailand’s international competitiveness by developing provincial urban areas, as well as the country’s domestic railway network. This policy will likely have to synchronize closely with China’s plan to extend high-speed railways to Southeast Asia.

The escalating Chinese and US presence may also lead to a power struggle. Since Thailand needs to cultivate relations with both powers, it will need to strike a balance — a difficult task.
These challenges will be central to Yingluck’s success as a manager of Thailand’s foreign relations. Thailand needs a clear and sophisticated foreign policy formulation to cope with these challenges. It also needs the next foreign minister to be someone who not only knows how to sell Thailand’s products but also understands the sensitivity of domestic politics in Thai foreign relations, and the complexity of the regional political economy.

East Asia Forum

Pongphisoot Busbarat is a research associate at the Department of Political and Social Change at Australian National University.

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