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Thailand's military and civilian ministers appear divided over diplomatic strategy

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks to reporters at a Sept. 1 press conference. (Photo by Hiroshi Kotani)

BANGKOK Recent diplomatic moves from the Thai military government appear to be attempting to strike an unlikely balance between freedom and oppression. The team assigned with responsibility for the economy, comprised mostly of civilian ministers, is seeking to bolster the relationship with long-term ally Japan and is actively considering joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement led by the U.S. and Japan. At the same time, the generals tasked with maintaining national security is sticking to a heavy-handed approach, siding with China and brushing off criticism of disregard for human rights.

     On Nov. 27, the Thai government held an investment seminar at Tokyo's Hotel New Otani, attracting about 1,000 people. Six Thai cabinet members attended, including the ministers of industry, commerce, transport, science and technology, and tourism and sports, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, who was hand-picked by the junta and has been heading the economic team since August.  Stressing he chose Japan for his first visit as economic policy chief and deputy prime minister, he stated the Thai government was pushing ahead with economic reforms to bring in a new phase of growth. He called for investment in Thailand's "10 future industries," fields of cutting-edge technology including robotics, biochemistry and aeronautical engineering.

     Three days before the seminar, in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Somkid said that Thailand was actively considering joining the TPP, going a step beyond the strong interest expressed in the past. The deputy prime minister also said that the agreement would benefit trade and investment. There is no doubt that Thailand, a major Southeast Asian manufacturing hub, joining the club would enhance the importance of the TPP.

     Yet the military element within the government, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, appears to be set on a completely different course.

     On Nov. 13, the government quietly repatriated two dissidents from mainland China who had been arrested in Thailand. Both had been recognized as refugees by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a third country had agreed to accept them. The UNHCR lashed out at Bangkok, and it was not the only body to do so.

     U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said he was "deeply concerned" because the two men "could face harsh treatment, arbitrary detention and the lack of due process." In an open letter to Prayuth, Human Rights Watch did not hold back in its criticism of the Thai prime minister. Sophie Richardson, the group's China director, called the move a "deliberate, premeditated rights violation," stating that it highlights the Thai government's "total disregard for fundamental human rights."

     Despite the storm of criticism from the international community, the junta remains unshaken.

     The Nov. 25 edition The Nation, a Bangkok-based English-language daily newspaper, reported that the Thai prime minister said he "did not mind the reaction of the international community as he made the decision for the stake of the national interest." The paper further quoted him as saying "We did this for the benefit of Thai people in accordance with Thai laws."

     On the same day, Supalak Ganjanahundee, a reporter at The Nation, wrote an article entitled "Prawit's foreign policy blunders bringing Thailand into disrepute" and criticized Prawit Wongsuwan, the defense minister and deputy prime minister, by name for making the decision to deport the two men.

     How long can Thailand pursue a diplomatic course that completely separates its economic and political stances? Japan, the country's largest investor, is refraining from openly criticizing Thailand over the human rights issue. Even though the U.S. has imposed sanctions on the junta since last May's coup, Glyn Davies, the newly appointed ambassador to Thailand, told reporters in Bangkok on Nov. 25 that "we do work together. Thailand is an ally of the U.S."

     A Japanese government official who has been involved in economic cooperation with Thailand for over a decade suggested Somkid may have chosen Japan for his first overseas visit in order to send the message that "Thailand is a member of your community" to Western governments.

     Even if this is the case, it appears that the U.S., Europe and Japan will likely continue to face conflicting signals from Somkid and Prayuth.

Nikkei deputy editor Kenji Kawase contributed to this story.

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