During Yingluck Shinawatra’s official visit to Japan late last month, Thailand’s first female premier did not just exploit her charm to win over Japan, but also dared to talk openly about the most sensitive issue facing her country — the protracted political crisis that followed the 2006 military coup that had overthrown her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the most successful prime minister in Thai history.

Yingluck held a bilateral talk with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As expected, Yingluck, accompanied by a large entourage of Thai businessmen, sought deeper economic cooperation with Japan. On top of her agenda, Yingluck attempted hard to raise the confidence of Japanese investors to continue to use Thailand as a production base. Two years ago, devastating floods caused severe damage to Japan’s factories mostly located in Thailand’s central plain, igniting a crisis of confidence in the Yingluck government.

The Thai premier proposed a strategic economic partnership with Japan, inviting Japanese conglomerates to invest in the Thailand-led development of the Dawei deep seaport and industrial estates in Myanmar, as well as the Thai project on constructing high-speed trains. The Japanese leadership responded to the Thai calls favorably.

Yingluck also addressed the 19th Future of Asia conference, co-hosted by the Nikkei and Japan Center for Economic Research, on the topic “Investing in the Future of Asia.” At the height of Thaksin’s popularity in 2002, he, too, delivered a captivating speech at this conference. But 11 years on, the political situation in Thailand is rather different. Yingluck stressed the need to put political crisis to rest but that in the process, democratic institutions must be strengthened. She could have referred to the fact that these institutions had been weakened over past decades by periodic military coups and recent judicial interventions in politics.

In retrospect, relations between Thailand and Japan entered a new phase during the Thaksin administration. Thaksin met with his counterpart, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in 2001 and recommended the commissioning of a study for a “Japan-Thailand Free Trade Agreement” and an “Economic Agreement for Partnership.” These two initial ideas later gave birth to the negotiations of the JTEPA (Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement).

Prior to the JTEPA, bilateral trade had already expanded significantly in the last 20 years. According to Japan Trade Statistics, in 2002, trade between Thailand and Japan totaled ¥2.85 trillion. Japan had long been Thailand’s largest trading partner. Thailand ranked the eighth-largest trade partner of Japan. Moreover, Japan had remained the largest investor in the kingdom in terms of the number of investors as well as the amount invested. JTEPA was thus expected to further enhance trade, investment and cooperation between two countries.

One year after the departure of Thaksin, Japan and Thailand signed the JTEPA, which immediately came into effect. The total trade volume between Thailand and Japan as well as Japan’s direct investment in Thailand has noticeably increased after its implementation. A recent study confirms that, in general, JTEPA has improved the real GDP growth of the Thai and Japanese economies by 0.42 percent and 0.11 percent respectively.

Japan was not only Thailand’s essential trading partner. It has been an important friend-in-need of Thailand, as seen during the financial crisis of 1997. Japan contributed generously to the International Monetary Fund rescue program as well as providing the Miyazawa Fund to help stimulate a recovery. Japan itself recognized the necessity of continued engagement with Southeast Asian states, not only for its own economic benefits but also to dilute China’s influence in the region.

Japan also played a crucial part in Thailand’s regional scheme as development partner. It has been a keen supporter of the Thai initiative — Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy — to close the development gap between countries on mainland Southeast Asia. The acceptance of Yingluck’s invitation to invest in Dawei demonstrated Japan’s attitude toward promoting economic development in Southeast Asia.

For the Thai media, Yingluck’s visit to Japan was a big success. It was a bold attempt by her government to take advantage of the already strong relationship, both in the economic terms and through the close connection between the royal families of the two countries.

Thailand’s amicable ties with Japan, as portrayed by Yingluck, are only one side of the story. The Thai prime minister is still unable to answer Japan’s request to expedite the resolution of the case of Reuters cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto, who was killed by Thai security forces during the deadly crackdown on red-shirt demonstrators on the streets of Bangkok in April 2010. Until now, nobody has been brought to justice in this case.

Back in 2010, Thailand was under the military-backed Democrat Party government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. That deadly crackdown on protesters led to 100 people being killed and more than 2,000 injured. Muramoto was one of the victims of this violence.

But Yingluck is in a difficult position. Bringing culprits to justice would force her to confront the military, which has remained inimical toward Thaksin and, to a certain extent, Yingluck as well. It was unsurprising if Yingluck was lost for words when asked about the progress on the Muramoto case.

Japan seems to have signaled that while the Muramoto case is tragic and a thorn in the bilateral relationship, more cooperation with Thailand in other avenues is equally important, if not more so, particularly as Japan embarks on reinventing itself as a more assertive power in the region — in the face of a rising China.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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