Big sister in town

Today, the seasoned American politician will be joined by Thailand’s first female Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at a joint press conference to “underscore US strong alliance with Thailand and its support for Thailand’s recovery efforts following severe flooding.”

It’s quite an honour for Mrs Clinton, or for Thailand???

The 64-year-old secretary of state normally has a joint statement/conference with her counterpart, not the leader of the countries she visits. For example, in July 2009, she and the external relations minister S.M. Krishna heralded an India-US strategic partnership. They made another joint statement after the strategic dialogue was held in July this year.

Mrs Clinton also had a joint statement with her Brazilian counterpart Celso Amorim in March last year.

For the debutante premier Yingluck, Clinton will be her first significant foreign guest while she is battling with the Great Flood.

Yingluck’s brother stood side by side with the then US President George Bush on 19 September 2005, not in Thailand, but in the US, delivering a joint statement reinvigorating the old Thai-US partnership.

Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had a joint statement with the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon in Bangkok in November 2010, a joint statement in New Delhi with his Indian counterpart in April 2011, and with the Philippine president when he visited Thailand in May this year.

On the one hand, Thai people should be consoled and grateful (to Yingluck or to the US remains inconclusive?!) that at an inconvenient time of flooding “big sister” is still visiting us. Yingluck can respond to dissenting voices in the opposition and among elite groups by showing that she has first class international connections.

Also, the presence and strong words of solidarity from the very capable Clinton will hopefully charm the international audience, reassuring them that Thailand is resilient and will soon be bouncing back to where it belongs.

Superficially, we could say that Thailand is keen on receiving external rubber stamps about happening in our own territory.

Over the past five years Thailand has shown its desperate need for the recognition of major powers, economically and politically, as the country moves into an unknown socio-political landscape.

Now is no exception, but for different reasons: we want the foreign dignitaries’ voice to tell the world that “Thailand will be back after the flood, and the key players are behind us.”

Today, the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon will lend his solidarity to Thailand during his one-day visit here on his way to the 19th ASEAN summit in Bali. Mr Ban will support Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in delivering support for flood relief and post-disaster reconstruction.

Today Prime Minister Yingluck will also listen to big sister Clinton at the Government House joint press conference. “It is in the US national security and political interest to have this government succeed, and we will do what we can to support that going forward.”

Like previous governments, the Yingluck administration has shunned the principles of protocol as long as it serves the purpose of shoring up domestic popularity at a time of crisis or rating heading downhill.

When Abhisit was the leader, he rolled out the red carpet for senior Chinese officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Communist Party. The Democrat government desperately needed Chinese endorsement to pursue normal relations as they were fully aware of the close ties between Thaksin and China.

It was Abhisit who had to visit China three times: the first right after the failed Pattaya Summit, then an official visit, and again to attend the grandeur of the Asian Games in Guangzhou.

It’s the psyche of the Thai leadership: they will sort of “kow tow” to those they feel in deficit with.

Some diplomats have said, “In this critical transition, any powerful dignitaries will be well-received. We badly need to regain the international community’s confidence. A strong message or more is needed to reaffirm our inner and fundamental strength. A minor protocol compromise of the joint press conference and joint statement is therefore not an issue.”

But this has raised some eyebrows as the US has provided, in cash and kind, less flood relief than others, such as Japan and the European Union.

But their voice seems louder.

Just a decade ago, the US was doing next to nothing when the financial crisis hit Thailand and spread into other Asian nations. Now they hope that their goodwill gesture will produce some positive results in a country that has usually been their close ally.

“The US secretary of state is equivalent to a foreign minister and prime minister is lowering her status to stand on the same podium. If they want to deliver a message to the Thai people, let Mrs Clinton do it on her own (or with her less than charming counterpart),” others argue.

By and large, the Pheu Thai party, a lousy transformation of the Thai Rak Thai party, unsurprisingly copied the Thaksin-styled strategy of a megaphone psychological approach to numb the dissenting voices.

After all, both Thailand and the US want to be seen that we never stand apart. Yet, the long-standing project to get President Barack Obama’s official visit since the Abhisit administration, more specifically in light of the September 2006 coup, has never been realized.

But Thailand’s first lady will still use the opportunity at the ASEAN Summit in Bali to hold a bilateral meeting with all key partners including Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (18 November), Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiniko Noda and President Obama (19 November).

There remains a long list of things for the Thai government to do before we can be shining on the global radar. Among the key issues includes settling whether or not we will allow political bickering to continue in a time of disaster management.

About Achara Ashayagachat, Guest Contributor