Monday, October 27, 2008

Thailand's government forced to host ASEAN summit in Chiang Mai

COMMENTARY

Saritdet Marukatat

Good news: Thailand will host the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in December.

Bad news: The event is coming to Thailand at the wrong time.

Hosting an Asean summit is a matter of prestige. It normally is an opportunity for the host country to show its colleagues what it can do.

The country stands to get huge media exposure and publicity for free. This is supposed to help promote the country's image and boost related industries such as the hotel and shopping businesses.

Instead of being excited about the forthcoming opportunity, which comes around alphabetically, the government now looks worried instead.

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat and other cabinet members are wondering how to host the most important regional meeting in such a way that will not embarrass themselves.

A government without Government House is bad enough already. Bringing the guests to meet the prime minister at his makeshift office at Don Mueang international airport would be totally unacceptable.

And it appears that this could very well happen as the People's Alliance for Democracy shows no sign of evacuating the place which is supposed to be occupied by Mr Somchai and his deputy prime ministers, instead of Sondhi Limthongkul, Chamlong Srimuang, Phibhop Dhongchai and other PAD members and supporters. A firm position by the prime minister that the PAD must hand over Government House back to the proper occupants has gone unheeded thus far.

As the summit on Dec 15-18 draws nearer, the organisers are getting more concerned. So now they're going for Plan B.

Instead of holding the event in Bangkok, they will be moving it to Chiang Mai. The second option has nothing to do with the fact that it is the home province of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former government leader sentenced to two years' jail in absentia by the Supreme Court for abuse of authority. And it also has nothing to do with the fact that the weather in that northern city is better than Bangkok, as the foreign minister claims.

The reason is that the government wants to stay away from possible trouble which the PAD protesters might create. Chiang Mai is not known as a PAD stronghold; many there still support the convicted former prime minister - this was clearly illustrated in the last election, when the party he supports, the People Power party, won the contest.

No matter where the summit takes place, the shame for Thailand is already palpable. Mr Somchai and his government will not have the chance to demonstrate their leadership among other Asean members. Leadership cannot be built overnight; it comes with political stability and a stable government.

As the summit draws nearer, the premier and cabinet members will promote initiatives to be tabled for discussion at the top level talks. But whether they will be approved is another thing. Hosting the event is not an automatic guarantee of success. Past accomplishments of the grouping did not spring from the formal negotiation tables at which leaders and their teams of negotiators sat. They were a result of the informal gatherings, including those at golf courses. Informal talks have played a key role in driving Asean forward for a long time. Unfortunately, that is what this government will not be able to offer.

The current political crisis is hampering the bargaining power of Thailand in its talks with other countries, including Asean. Other countries will be willing to listen to any Thai proposals and initiatives. But they will definitely not go beyond that because they are not sure how long Mr Somchai will stay in power, given the standoff with the PAD.

The government also faces another uncertainty, as Mr Somchai's party is awaiting a verdict on whether it will be disbanded due to election fraud by the party's then deputy leader Yongyuth Tiyapairat.

Mr Somchai himself had not expected to become prime minister. Given all the problems surrounding him, he should not expect anything concrete from the Asean summit, either.

Saritdet Marukatat is News Editor, Bangkok Post.

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