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Singapore suffers Thailand's diplomatic flip-flop while Thaksin gains media attention

Updated On: Jan 19, 2007

From the looks of it, Singapore is Thailand's whipping boy over the Thaksin visit.

The retaliatory actions look set to continue until the Thai authorities are appeased. It is said that the strict position on Singapore is to deter other states from welcoming the former prime minister. Some have said, however, that given the confused position Thailand had regarding Thaksin's status, the kingdom has also to bear responsibility over the recent fiasco. Its “obsession” with Thaksin and yet failure or lack of political will to find wrong-doings by Thaksin is particularly ironic given that it was one of the publicly stated reason for the coup. The strong reactions against Singapore, and the paranoia,  including the most recent allegations by The Nation that the head of the Council of National Security (CNS), Sonthi’s phone conversations have been tapped and leaked to Singapore, therefore only showed up its own weakness and defensiveness. 

After Thaksin visited the city-state over the weekend, making a “personal and private” visit to Singapore's DPM Prof. Jayakumar, and conducting interviews with CNN and the Asian Wall Street Journal, Thailand promptly summoned Singapore's ambassador to Thailand, Peter Chan, for explanation. This was followed by the cancellation of “all high-level meetings between the two countries, including the planned visit to Bangkok this month by Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo to attend a three-day meeting on the Singapore-Thailand civil service exchange programme”, the Bangkok Post reported.

Gen. Sonthi has also made contradictory remarks about bilateral relations, as reported by the Bangkok Post. On one hand, he announced, “Although Singapore is not our enemy, we are economic rivals. They could be informed of secrets in the army and in the economic sector… Our communications and information sent over mobile phones or via satellite could appear in Singapore.” On the other hand, he said “the army would adopt certain measures to deal with Singapore” but these “would be subtle, and not include a boycott of bilateral military cooperation”. Yet, Gen. Sonthi presently “is considering reviewing and possibly cancelling a contract for Singapore to use a military training base in Kanchanaburi” if Singapore fails to toe the line regarding Thaksin. This action is meant to punish Singapore severely as it has “been paying to use the military camp in Kanchanaburi province for at least 20 years”. The Singapore-Thai armies also have an agreement to carry out joint military exercises every three years. This compact ends this July.  However, the threat to cut off military ties was denied later.

While Thitinan Ponghisurak (of Chulalongkorn University) lauded the Thai authorities' recent moves and said that Singapore “cannot feign ignorance and provide implicit recognition of Thaksin Shinawatra without serious consequences” and that its leaders “keep shooting themselves in the foot” by always bumbling in diplomatic relations with Thailand, other Thais are unhappy with the authorities' lack of diplomacy. Former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan “raised concerns over possible complications from excessive patriotism”, the Bangkok Post noted. Surachart Bamrungsuk, a security expert at Chulalongkorn University, also criticized the “retraction of the invitation to Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo”.

Nonetheless, the Nation and Bangkok Post (among others) have said that the Thai authorities were partly to blame for the mess. The Thai Foreign Ministry has been faulted for being naïve in “believing [Thaksin's] visit would be low-key and private”. Apparently briefed on Thaksin's meeting with DPM Jayakumar, it was not until PM Surayud put his foot down whereupon the Foreign Ministry “quickly made an about-face to get tough with Singapore one day after it had said there was nothing to worry about regarding the meeting”.

Given that Thaksin had travelled widely without censure until the Singapore visit, the punitive actions have caught Singapore by surprise. The Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed regret at Thailand's actions, and “hopes that Thailand can appreciate Singapore's position” as “there was no reason… to turn Thaksin away” -especially when Thai nationals need not require travel visas. However, PM Surayud is taking none of this. The Thai government has warned that Singaporeshould have been more circumspect as it had “already revoked Thaksin's diplomatic passport” and that the visit to DPM Jayakumar sent “the wrong signal to the Thai public”.

Whatever it is, Thaksin remains clearly the winner. Not only has he “out-foxed” the present Thai government, the strong reactions from the Thai government to Singapore only showed up the Thai authorities’ paranoia and “fear” of Thaksin.  It must put a question mark back in the minds of some people in Thailand – what is the coup all about and how confident the junta is about its own position?  This perverse “obsession” with one man reflected the junta’s weakness and lack of political finesse. 

Former Singapore ambassador to the UN, Kishore Mahbubani, has come out to speak against Thaksin. The Nation reported him as saying to the Today newspaper, “Thaksin put Singapore in a tight spot. We tried to make his visit as low-key as possible. In some ways, Thaksin was unkind to us. It would have been better if he had done the CNN interview somewhere else.” He added, “In my experience, when that happens you get these strong positions being taken. It's a way for the government to protect itself. So, Singapore becomes a victim in these political wrangles.” His advice to Singapore was to wait out the storm.

Sources:

Phone calls tapped and leaked to Singapore: Paper (The Straits Times, 19 January 2007)

Thaksin is unfair and unkind to Singapore : former S'pore envoy (Nation, 18 January 2007)

Analysis: Singapore's insensitive miscalculation (Bangkok Post, 18 January 2007)

Paper blames Bangkok for bungling ties (Straits Times, 4 January 2007)

Singapore `regrets' Thai retaliation (Bangkok Post, 18 January 2007)

S'pore may lose army training site (Bangkok Post, 18 January 2007)

Thailand sends mixed signals to Singapore (Nation, 18 January 2007)

Spat with Singapore sends a warning to all countries on dealings with Thaksin

A blunder in diplomacy (Bangkok Post, 18 January 2007)