In the past eight years, the Thai military staged two military coups that overthrew two members of the Shanawatra family. Thaksin was toppled in 2006 and his sister, Yingluck, was removed from power in May this year. Obviously the military, which acts on behalf of the old establishment, had perceived the Shinawatras as a threat to its power position. And it felt that this threat had to be eliminated.
For decades, political power in Thailand had been dominated by the old establishment. But from 2001, when Thaksin strolled into the premiership, his overwhelming popularity with effective populist policies made him a champion of electoral politics. Ever since then the Thai political landscape has been transformed in a drastic manner. His political success was passed on to Yingluck, a relatively unknown member of the family. Winning a landslide election in 2011, Yingluck rose to become a popular leader in her own right.
The fact that Thailand is approaching a royal succession has deepened the anxiety of the old establishment that the Shinawatras could come back to politics and take charge of the transition inside the palace. This anxiety drove the military to oust Yingluck at the height of her political success.
Since the coup in May, the junta, now led by Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been struggling to gain legitimacy both from the Thai public and the international community. In foreign relations, his government has tried hard to tell the world that the coup was necessary to prevent Thailand from falling into a political abyss. He also promised to embark on political reforms and organize an election at the earliest opportunity.
But so far, there has been no sign of such reforms, nor fixed time frame for election. Meanwhile, the human rights of Thais have continued to be violated. Thus, some Western governments decided to impose sanctions on the junta. This situation prompted Prayuth to search for new sources of legitimacy from neighboring countries. Since he has become prime minister, he paid official visits to Myanmar and Cambodia. Last month, Prayuth attended the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit in Milan, Italy, where he held bilateral talks with some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China and Japan.
Within this region, China and Japan appear to have served as legitimacy providers for the junta in the face of Western sanctions against Thailand. Prayuth was particularly keen to show his strong ties with China. He met with a group of Chinese businesses in Thailand and sent his representatives to China to strengthen relationship with its leaders.
Similarly, Prayuth hoped to get Japan’s blessing for his military regime. After meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Milan, Prayuth informed the Thai public that Japan “understood” Thailand’s political situation, and that this could mean that the Thai junta was a government that Japan could live with.
Diplomacy à la Prayuth seemed to function well until the Shinawatras struck back diplomatically to reclaim their lost legitimacy.
As Prayuth returned from Italy, Yingluck left Thailand for Japan to meet up with Thaksin. It was meant to be just a family holiday for the Thai junta. But the Shinawatras marvelously demonstrated their PR skill by posting countless photos of their vacation break in Japan on their Facebook pages. Photos of them eating burgers at McDonald’s in Tokyo eclipsed routine news in Thailand.
From Tokyo, Thaksin and Yingluck went on to China, where they climbed the Great Wall and visited numerous temples and museums.
They were also invited to the City Planning Bureau in Beijing to learn about China’s urban development. The footage of the Shinawatras being debriefed by Chinese officials made it seem as if both Thaksin and Yingluck were still Thai prime ministers.
From Beijing the Shinawatras traveled to Guangdong to pay respect to their ancestors and hundreds of local people lined up to greet them. Giant banners with warm messages were hung on trees and buildings around town. A street party was organized to celebrate the visit of “children of the Chinese” to their ancestral hometown. As Thaksin and Yingluck kneeled down in front of the tombs of their Chinese ancestors, their actions emphasized their connection with China.
More interestingly, the Chinese government assigned former Chinese ambassador to Bangkok, Guan Mu, to accompany the Shinawatras throughout their trip.
Guan is an influential figure within the Foreign Ministry of China. At different capacities, he had served in Thailand for more than 18 years. He speaks Thai fluently and has a direct access to top Thai leaders.
While performing as ambassador to Myanmar, Guan was able to exert his influence through his government’s assistance for relief and rehabilitation for the victims of the Cyclone Nargis disaster. Meetings could not go ahead without the presence of Guan. Therefore, Guan’s appearances with Thaksin and Yingluck was a clear indication of China’s pragmatic approach toward different members of the Thai political scene.
China has offered support to the military regime. But at the same time, welcoming the Shinawatras with a red carpet suggested that China wanted to leave some room for diplomatic maneuver in case the life of the Prayuth government is cut short. As democracy has recently swept the Southeast Asian region, with Indonesia and Myanmar undergoing a series of democratic reforms, dictatorship might not endure in such an environment.
The Shinawatras’ trip to China and Japan should remind the Thai junta that no country will put all its eggs in one basket. If the junta believes that China and Japan are firmly on its side, it has to think again. Pragmatism continues to define international politics here, as elsewhere.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, where he teaches Southeast Asian politics and international relations in Asia.