Bangkok – The issue of the 131 Thai-Muslims who fled to Malaysia is fast becoming a diplomatic embarrassment when "it could have been settled quickly and amicably if the concerned Thai authorites, especially Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had shown diplomatic finesse and sensibility", according to a commentary in The Nation.
Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation's assistant group editor, said that to resolve the issue, "it is crucial to call for thorough dialogue and diplomacy, for whichThailand has been famous for centuries. But under this government, diplomatic skill has been lacking".
He wrote: "Thai leaders have made silly and premature comments such as that the 131 were not refugees and that the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) had nothing to do with it. They simply did not have enough information.
"Thaksin took the toughest line, saying that they were terrorists in disguise. The Foreign Ministry said that they were instigated by separatists who wanted to wreak havoc on Thailand’s reputation and foreign policy."
Now that the UNHCR is involved, "the issue has morphed into one needing collective responsibility".
Mr Kavi also described Malaysia as "playing diplomatic brinksmanship with different hats – as the Non-aligned Movement, Organization of Islamic Conference and Asean chairman".
"It is no surprise that Kuala Lumpur's position and comment would resonate in the international community as its prestige and national interest is at stake."
He warned that Thailand's international reputation would be tarnished further as a result of the incident.
"On the human-rights front, foreign governments and international human-rights organisations are scrutinising Thailand. Within the Muslim world, southern Thailandnow ranks high on their watch-list. In the long run, it could impact on Thailand's relations with Asean and polarise Asean. Muslims make up more than half of the 500-million plus population in Asean."
However, he added, "Thai leaders have no clue about the dangers of the foreign policy they are pursuing because they are too focused on one man’s comments and instructions".
* Foreign-policy faux pas discredits Thailand (The Nation, Sept 12)