In this webinar, Ambassador Sihasak Phuangketkeow addresses the student protests in Bangkok and assess the prospects for the Thai economy and for Thai diplomacy in the medium-term future.
THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Wednesday, 9 December – Ambassador Sihasak Phuangketkeow is former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thailand; former ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute Thailand Studies Programme visiting fellow; and an advisor to Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor project. He spoke in his personal capacity.
Ambassador Sihasak began his webinar by noting that, in its politics and foreign policy, Thailand remained in many ways just where it was ten years ago. The political and economic challenges that the country faced required thoroughgoing reforms. Despite much talk, the country had not acted to implement needed structural reforms. He observed that Thailand was approaching a crossroads that demanded far-sighted leadership.
Ambassador Sihasak stressed the need for Thailand to be more active at both the regional and global levels, even as its government confronted the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and the possibility of a stalemate in domestic politics. He outlined the measures that the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha had taken to address the economic and social fall-out from the pandemic and noted that the pandemic might complicate Thailand’s effort to escape “the middle-income trap”. At the same time, the Eastern Economic Corridor project might have an important positive role to play in that effort, as would Thailand’s success as the first country in ASEAN to introduce a 5-G network.
Ambassador Sihasak pointed out that, despite its generally “low profile and cautious” approach to foreign policy, Thailand had during its recent ASEAN chairmanship furthered RCEP negotiations and the adoption of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, the country must continue to work to increase its profile as an important ASEAN state, one able to contribute in a range of areas.
The country’s economic diplomacy ought to focus on the proposed Thailand-EU free trade agreement and on the possibility of joining the CPTPP. Thailand must be a leader in addressing both issues facing the Mekong sub-region and the challenges that geopolitics pose to the unity and relevance of ASEAN. Bangkok must also work to make clear its value as a strategic partner in Southeast Asia, not least in the context of the impending change of administration in Washington.
Ambassador Sihasak concluded his remarks by reiterating the importance of Thailand’s addressing “head-on” the need for reform in the area of politics and the economy. On a positive note, he remarked that many Thais were very much aware of this need.
Questions from participants in the webinar concerned the prospects for and possible benefits of two proposed megaprojects in Southern Thailand, the “Thai Canal” and the Chumphon-Ranong Land Bridge, and their potential impact on the Dawei deep sea port project in Myanmar; Thailand’s role in matters concerning the Mekong River and in ACMECS; and Thai-Indian relations and the diplomatic role of India in Southeast Asia. Participants in the webinar also asked about the changing make-up of the Thai diplomatic corps and the impact of recent protests in Thailand on Thai foreign policy. One further question called on Ambassador Sihasak to elaborate on the reasons for Thailand having punched below its weight in ASEAN, while yet another concerned the impact on trade and governance of various American initiatives, undertaken under the framework of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.