Don Pramudwinai, Thailand’s new ambassador to the United States, is a beacon of stability in the swirling tempest of political turmoil that has engulfed his homeland in recent years.
The 59-year-old ambassador presented his credentials to President Barack Obama in July after having served as Thailand’s representative to the United Nations since 2007. Prior to that, Pramudwinai was his country’s ambassador to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg for three years, and ambassador to China before that.
The career diplomat, relatively unaffected by his country’s political ups and downs, recently sat down with The Washington Diplomat in his spacious office at the embassy in Georgetown to discuss issues ranging from Thailand’s government upheaval, to the case of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, to his country’s successful recovery from the 2004 tsunami, to nurturing Thailand’s longstanding 175-year bilateral relationship with the United States.
But among all the issues, it’s Thailand’s internal dramas that often get the most outside attention. “It doesn’t really affect my assignment, luckily,” the savvy civil servant explained. “Normally people in foreign affairs are excluded from politics because we are professionals.”
That may be — but the upheavals that have rocked Thailand’s government over the past five years haven’t exactly been normal (also see “Who’s in Charge? In Twisty Thai Politics, It Keeps Changing” in the February 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a British-born economist, has held together a fragile coalition government since last year, but Vejjajiva’s hold on power is clearly tenuous: Just a little over a month ago, millions of Thais signed a petition in support of the opposition party, which was followed by bloody anti-government protests in late September that were reminiscent of the wide-scale, tit-for-tat protests and ousters that destabilized Thailand’s government for three years.
The clashes have pitted Thailand’s mostly rural poor in the northeast against the country’s military and Bangkok-based urban elite. The clashes have also essentially boiled down to one man: Thaksin Shinawatra.
A Thai telecommunications millionaire, Thaksin was elected prime minister in 2001 on a populist platform of economic growth and development. In February 2005, he was re-elected by a greater majority, but soon after, allegations of corruption began to fester and anti-government sentiment set in, particularly among the middle class. In 2006, hundreds of thousands marched in the streets to demand Thaksin’s resignation.
Thaksin dissolved Parliament and called snap elections in 2006, but the main opposition parties boycotted the polls and the judiciary annulled the results. Then, before new elections could be held, a group of top military officers overthrew the caretaker Thaksin administration in a bloodless coup, repealed the 1997 constitution, and later convicted Thaksin in absentia of corruption charges (the petition recently submitted by his supporters requested clemency for their former leader, who fled Thailand last year to avoid jail time).
Soon thereafter, Thai voters approved a new constitution drafted essentially by the coup leaders, but Thaksin supporters didn’t go quietly into exile like their leader. The People Power Party (PPP), an offshoot of Thaksin’s original party, won the first post-coup election in December 2007 and named Samak Sundaravej the country’s prime minister. The opposition party, People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), retaliated with mass protests against Samak, who eventually had to step down because of a court ruling that he violated conflict of interest laws by hosting a televised cooking show, of all things.
His successor, Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, was also forced from office when hundreds of thousands of yellow-clad members of PAD led massive protests throughout the country, and the courts declared that Somchai and PPP leaders had committed election fraud and banned them from politics for five years.
Enter fresh-faced Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has managed to keep the country together since coming to office in December 2008 despite simmering anger and resentment among the PPP’s rural supporters. Thaksin himself hasn’t let up on his campaign to return to Thai politics. “Our country has deteriorated and risks being a failed state,” the ousted prime minister recently told supporters in a video call from an undisclosed country. “The whole world thought Thailand was already developed, or almost developed, but it has gone backward to dictatorship.”
In the meantime, current Prime Minister Vejjajiva has pleaded for peace in the wake of the latest protests in September at an ancient Hindu temple by the Cambodian border. “We can express different opinions, but please don’t hurt each other,” he said in an address to the nation.
That all brings us back to Pramudwinai, who has been somewhat insulated from his country’s political convulsions both because he is an apolitical diplomat and because he works abroad, though he admits that the tumult is certainly cause for concern.
“We are not happy about this political turbulence,” he said matter-of-factly. “In the past, we have had coups but we have been on a right and proven path of democracy for the past 15 years. Now, all of a sudden we have to start again.”
But the amiable ambassador is convinced Thailand’s 15-year-old democracy will emerge stronger for the test. “Like most countries, we have gone through a process of trial and error, but we have tried to be as democratic as possible,” he said. “The process of democracy is working just fine.”
Pramudwinai said the current placeholder government will remain in office until the end of its term in two years. And after that? “Nobody knows,” he said with a smile and a slight shrug. “Like most political scenes, you have your opposition leaders going back in forth in the papers and media…. We hope in the end some reconciliation will be found, but I don’t know what formula it will have. This is very much up in the air right now. It needs time to settle.”
The U.S. government has been relatively silent on the political turmoil in Thailand, choosing to let the country work it out itself. Pramudwinai said that is likely a reflection of the strong relationship the two nations enjoy. “We have always had very good relations,” he said. “But as with most things there is always room for improvement.”
And Thailand would most like to see those improvements come on the economic front. Vejjajiva is even going on an economic road show of sorts when he comes to the United States for the U.N. General Assembly meeting and G-20 summit in September to drum up foreign investment for Thailand.
The United States is Thailand’s third-largest trading partner after Japan and China. Last year, U.S. imports were .5 billion — with seafood comprising a huge chunk of that amount — while exports totaled .1 billion, according to the U.S. State Department. Meanwhile, U.S. investment in Thailand is estimated at billion.
Pramudwinai says that number could be better — in a better economy. “There is a lot of room for improvement, but we realize we are in a difficult situation with regard to the economic crisis,” he said.
Though its financial system wasn’t nearly as overly leveraged as America’s was, Thailand’s hasn’t emerged from the economic crisis unscathed — as its gross domestic product fell a stunning 7.1 percent compared to the year earlier period in the first quarter of 2009.
Pramudwinai said the Asian financial crisis of 1997 prepared Thailand and other Asian countries to navigate the current treacherous waters, but there is no silver bullet to deal with a global financial downturn.
“We knew this might happen again but I can’t say we are not victimized by this,” he said. “If it keeps on going for another year or two, we will be in a much worse position but up to this point, I think we can still manage it.”
Two rounds of government-funded economic stimulus injections appear to have helped Thailand’s unemployment rates stabilize, and signs of economic growth were evident in the first half of 2009.
“The Thai economy has passed the lowest point,” Ampon Kittiampon, secretary-general of the country’s National Economic and Social Development Board, told the Bangkok Post in September. “There are signs of recovery in the second quarter in terms of jobless figures, government investment and private construction.”
Meanwhile, Pramudwinai said he had high hopes for the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in late September. “We are hopeful that under the leadership of the United States that the whole problem would be solved and a magic formula would be found,” he said, laughing.
Turning serious, the ambassador said he did think it was important for the United States to press the group for serious policy discussions and real reform. “We are hopeful that this G-20 would not be another so-called get-together of the 20 nations, but coming out very concretely with solutions,” he said. “That would underscore the leadership of the U.S.”
Despite the warm ties with the United States, a rough patch has recently emerged in the form of a notorious arms dealer. Viktor Bout — known as “the Merchant of Death” for reportedly shipping arms that have fueled conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America — was apprehended in Thailand in March 2008 during a sting operation led by U.S. agents posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
U.S. officials have said Bout’s actions “threaten the lives of U.S. citizens,” but a Bangkok Criminal Court refused in August to extradite Bout to the United States because it deemed FARC a political movement and not a terrorist organization. Washington has lodged an appeal against the ruling, but that could take several months.
Pramudwinai is non-committal on the issue, which he regards as a legal, not a diplomatic, matter. “Our government doesn’t have a position,” the ambassador said. “It’s a purely legal issue. We leave it in the hands of the judges and legal persons to look into.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.