Free from the grip of the fugitive former PM, the Foreign Ministry can enjoy a new lease of life.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after finally revoking the diplomatic red passport belonging to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, must now also revoke his standard passport. His legal status as a convicted criminal and fugitive should be understood by all countries. As a convicted felon, he is automatically disqualified from the right to possess a Thai passport. Thaksin is no different to any other Thai citizen who has a passport. This travel document belongs to the Thai government, and it can be withdrawn at any time.
The privilege of owning a diplomatic passport was at last removed from Thaksin after months of wrangling. Following the formation of a Democrat-led coalition government on Monday, the Saranrom Palace did the right thing in revoking the diplomatic privilege. Indeed, the Foreign Ministry should have done this long ago, if only to prove that it can act independently. But the political burden that would have come with such a move stalled its willingness to make a decision on the matter.
This time the decision can be viewed as a willow bending with the political wind. The ministry quietly revoked the diplomatic passport after Thaksin did not appeal his case when he was convicted of malfeasance concerning conflict of interest over the Rachadaphisek land deal. In October, the Supreme Court sentenced him to a two-year jail term in absentia. That should have been sufficient ground for the ministry to revoke his passport then. The ministry now says that it consulted the government before making the decision.
The ministry’s handling of the passport case shows the true nature of the senior officials in control at the moment. They will do anything to survive. The professionalism of this respected ministry receded rapidly following the rise of the Thaksin government in 2001. Until 2006, Thaksin’s government interfered with the ministry at every turn. Every policy was tempered and tampered with, especially those that concerned neighbouring countries, because Thaksin’s personal vested interests were involved.
Senior officials who followed Thaksin’s long wish list were rewarded. Those who dared to challenge him were punished mercilessly and relocated to inactive positions. This helps to explain why the morale of the ministry’s officials sank to a low level. Some senior officials still act as if they were nominees of Thaksin, protecting his long-standing interests in neighbouring countries
It is important that the new government restores some much-needed professionalism to the ministry at all levels. First of all, the ministry needs a new direction. Three ministers have come and gone in four months. Nothing substantive was achieved because none of them stayed long enough to do anything. The ever-changing governments also cowed the ministry’s officials and forced them into submission. For instance, the negotiation between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Temple dispute has stalled and no decision has been concluded. Furthermore, the 14th Asean Summit has been held hostage by the political crisis and rescheduled twice. So it is incumbent for the ministry to get its act together.
The Thai Parliament has a growing role under the constitution of 2007, and elected officials and the Foreign Ministry have not really shown an appreciation of the significance of Article 190, which mandates that all documents affecting the national interest be vetted and approved by Parliament.
Of course, such screening will take time, but it is necessary as part of our democratisation process. Under Thaksin, key foreign policy decisions were made by him alone, with no input from anyone else at all. His decisions were riddled with self-interest. Article 190 was born out of Thaksin’s abuse of power.
With the new government, the ministry should come out with new policy orientation that will place the national interest first. It is fortunate that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva does not own any businesses. So, the ministry should feel free to propose the best policy options regarding our neighbours and the rest of the world.