BANGKOK – Earlier this month Russian Prime Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian prime minister to visit Thailand in 25 years. The Russian leader’s visit to Bangkok was excessively publicized both to the benefit of Russia in expanding its presence in Southeast Asia, and to that of the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocho who took advantage of Medvedev’s high profile visit to legitimize his regime.
While in Thailand, Medvedev signed a number of bilateral agreements with his Thai counterpart, for example, to combat drug trafficking, boost investment and develop Thai energy sector. The two countries were ambitious in their goal to double annual bilateral trade next year to $10 billion.
As reported by the Russian media, around 0.9 percent of ASEAN exports are services to Russia and 2.8 percent of Russian exports are services to ASEAN. Thailand is the leading ASEAN nation trading with Russia at $2.3 billion, leaving far behind Vietnam with $609 million and Singapore at $364 million. Thailand hopes Russia will buy its over-produced rubber. On top of this, it expects to attract more Russian tourists. In 2014, Thailand drew 1.6 million Russian tourists. But so far, the total number is down 8.6 percent this year.
What is more important than the strengthening of diplomatic ties between Thailand and Russia is the fact that Medvedev’s trip to Bangkok came at the time when the Prayuth regime has been heavily criticized by certain Western governments and international organizations. They have condemned the Prayuth government for replacing martial law with sweeping security powers for the military, as an obstacle to the protection of the people’s rights.
Prayuth’s statement perfectly reflected the perception of Thailand vis-a-vis the game of international politics in which his country has been dealing with different great powers. Prayuth said, “Friends prove their worth when one is in trouble. Friends will help and understand,” purportedly to praise the Russian friendship at the expense of the United States, which has taken a harsher stance against his regime.
In response, Medvedev replied, “Thailand is a close friend in the Asia-Pacific region and we have long diplomatic relations. In two years we will mark our 120 years of relations.”
Preparation for Prayuth’s visit to Moscow, which could take place within months, is already underway. It is noteworthy that most Western nations have applied travel bans against top Thai military leaders. So Prayuth’s trip to Russia could be seen as a big slap in the face of these countries.
In Thailand, the exploitation of Medvedev’s visit to consolidate the position of the government has continued. A Thai government spokesperson has confirmed that Thailand will consider buying military weapons from Russia. This news is likely to irritate the U.S., which has long been an arms supplier for Thailand. In reality, however, Russia has always been an alternative source of military equipment for Thailand.
Ten year ago, when Thailand was under the Thaksin Shinawatra government, the country’s ties with Russia were strong. President Vladimir Putin became Russia’s major arms salesman and sought to expand arms sales with Thailand. His efforts was welcomed by Thaksin, who agreed to buy a dozen Sukhoi-30 fighter jets from Russia worth $500 million. In 2015, Russia has subtly engaged itself in Thailand’s political situation to regain its political foothold, a move that has chilled U.S.-Thai relations.
But the renewed friendly relations between Thailand and Russia must be analyzed in the context of the turbulence in the Thai domestic politics. Since the coup of May 2014, an army of Western nations, including the U.S, Australia, and EU states, has imposed soft sanctions against the military junta.
To lessen the impact of Western sanctions, the Thai military government has turned to its neighboring countries to seek their endorsement of its regime. Powerful dignitaries from Myanmar and Cambodia all paid visits to Thailand while offering their support for the military government. China, in particular, is playing the role of a legitimacy provider to the Thai junta, which to a great extent has permitted Thailand to withstand outside pressure.
Now Russia is following in the footsteps of China and some of Thailand’s friends in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But this will only further deepen the level of competition among foreign powers in regards to their relationships with Thailand. Already the U.S. has retaliated, stepped up its criticism of the shrinking of democratic space in Thailand and the continued abuses of human rights there.
In Washington’s latest move, President Barack Obama finally announced his nomination for U.S. ambassador to Thailand, after the post remained vacant for six months. But his choice of Glyn Townsend Davies, the former U.S. special representative for North Korea Policy, has raised many eyebrows.
The U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said, “A career diplomat, Davies is expected to put his knowledge of crisis diplomacy to good use in the context of Thailand’s uncertain political landscape. Expect Davies to continue calling on the Thai military and interim government to restore democracy and show support for the civil and political rights of the Thai people.” This will surely further put U.S.-Thai ties under strains.
Although the political drama in Thailand is far from over, Medvedev’s trip to Bangkok allowed a convenient break for the junta from the heat. Russia has helped raise the Thai military’s confidence in prolonging its rule of Thailand. But Moscow’s move, unfortunately, will not improve the Thai political situation either now or in the long run.
By Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and in Self Exile from Thailand.