Thailand's military government seeks stronger regional ties as West backs off

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 July, 2014, 12:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 July, 2014, 12:15am

Thailand's military government is shoring up diplomatic ties with Asian neighbours to provide a counterweight to criticism from the West about its seizure of power in May and its reluctance to set an early date for a return to civilian rule.

In the latest move, Acting Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow reassured Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday that Cambodian workers who had fled home after the coup, fearing a crackdown on immigrants, would be welcomed back.

He returned from Cambodia yesterday, bringing with him Thai activist Veera Somkwamkid, an ultra-nationalist jailed there on charges of espionage and illegal entry for pressing Thailand's claim to a disputed ancient temple on the border.

Neighbours know it is of benefit to take a soft approach to the Thai military

The May 22 military takeover drew swift international condemnation and both the United States and European Union have downgraded diplomatic ties.

The military's National Council for Peace and Order has played down these moves, focusing instead on strengthening its relationship with China and others in Asia.

Last month, a Thai army delegation visited China and Malaysia's defence minister came to Thailand. Myanmar's army chief is due in Bangkok tomorrow.

The military authorities also claim support from Vietnam.

Veera received a hero's welcome at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport yesterday from supporters shouting "Veera! Fight! Fight!" as he made his way through a media scrum.

Cambodia's pardon for the Thai activist suggests a thaw in relations between old foes and a 180-degree change in stance by veteran Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen rattled Thailand in 2009 when he appointed former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic adviser and refused to extradite him. Thaksin was ousted by the military in 2006 and fled Thailand to escape a graft conviction two years later.

"This is a gentleman's agreement between Cambodia and Thailand's military government not to interfere in each other's politics," said Kan Yuenyong of the Siam Intelligence Unit think tank.

"Cambodia has no reason to interfere in Thailand right now, but in the past Hun Sen used politics to manipulate the land dispute issue."

Thailand and Cambodia have been locked for decades in a dispute over land surrounding the Preah Vihear temple. The International Court of Justice ruled in 2013 that Cambodia had sovereignty over the immediate area around the temple.

"Regional neighbours in Asia know that it is of economic benefit to them to take a soft approach to the Thai military," analyst Kan added.