A Farewell to Western Envoys in Bangkok

US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies, left, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai speak to reporters in a 2016 news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo: Matichon
US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies, left, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai speak to reporters in a 2016 news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo: Matichon

Re•tention: Pravit Rojanaphruk

At a recent farewell reception for Peter Prugel, the German ambassador to Thailand, a prominent international human rights activist who was in town from Geneva wasted little time reminding Thai activists about the task ahead: Convincing the next lot of new ambassadors from prominent Western nations that human rights and democracy – or the lack thereof – are vital to the future of the kingdom and their national interests.

Is such an objective too demanding since envoys are dispatched to defend their national interests and foster good ties with whoever is in power, legitimate or not, and at any cost?

Besides Prugel, the French and American ambassadors are among those leaving after September.

Take the case of US Ambassador Glyn T. Davies, who arrived after the 2014 coup. The Thai public saw a staunchly anti-coup Davies – who spoke clearly about the need for democracy – mellow to the point of a near U-turn after Donald Trump was elected president. Davies has become at least publicly cordial and diplomatic toward the Thai military regime ever since.

Meanwhile, at last month’s Bastille Day celebration at the French ambassador’s residence, pro-democracy activist Rangsiman Rome asked me why very few pro-democracy figures had been invited. I had no answer, but I knew outgoing French Ambassador Gilles Garachon put numerous pro-democracy figures on the guest list during the past three years, and it may have been chance that few showed up this year.

However, I remember Garachon referred to Prayuth as “your prime minister” during the Bastille Day press conference and I had to duly ask him in front of other journalists what he had to say to many other Thais who consider Prayuth illegitimate, as he’s also the coup leader.

Diplomatically, Garachon then went on to describe Prayuth as “the prime minister.”

Let us not forget that France has done more than its share by admitting Thai political asylum seekers since the 2014 coup.

The current number, according to a Paris-based dissident who fled after the putsch, is about a dozen. And despite warming ties between the European Union and the Thai military regime, Garachon assured me last month that he isn’t aware of any change in the status of those asylum seekers. That means the anti-junta, anti-monarchist Thais are unlikely to be forced to return.

Maybe people expect too much from Western diplomats, particularly heads of mission from key countries. Perhaps we should be more Machiavellian in our thinking and consider diplomats Janus-faced deal makers and resident salesmen of their respective countries – or even spies.

Let’s not go down that path. There is room for positive engagement with envoys. Pro-democracy Thais cannot ignore them and will have to continue engaging with them in the most effective way possible, particularly now that the junta is sinking deeper roots into Thai society and some civilian politicians are expressing fears of electoral manipulation.

Pro-democracy Thais will have to redouble efforts to convince these envoys to consider the long game. They have to remind these diplomats about how badly their nations will be tainted in history if they blindly embrace a military regime oppressing people who aspire to similar values of liberty, human rights and democracy – values supposedly cherished in these Western nations, for which Thais are being persecuted and prosecuted.

Over the years, I have met with a number of Western diplomats who exhibit what appeared to be genuine concern for Thailand’s future.

In the aftermath of my second detention without charge three years ago by the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta’s formal name, at least four embassies invited to me to recount my ordeal and offered their sympathies. One ambassador, who I cannot name due to the sensitivity of diplomatic relations, even cajoled me to apply for a visa to the country – just in case.

I know they have the unenviable and difficult job of balancing their altruistic concerns for human rights and democracy with defending their own national interests, be they economic or political. Western diplomats are not in Bangkok to just promote values such as free press, human rights and democracy but to facilitate the sale of goods and services – even weapons, army tanks, military helicopters and fighter jets to Juntaland Thailand.

Junior diplomats can focus on one major task and you can feel their enthusiasm. Take Shawn Friele, outgoing second secretary of the Canadian embassy, in charge of human rights files. He was a fixture at many trials against anti-junta activists, often at the Bangkok military court, giving those accused a measure of reassurance that Ottawa is watching. Friele feels genuine passion in what he does. Being a diplomat means having to rotate, however. Leaving Bangkok’s heat for Ottawa’s cold this month, Friele will now be reassigned to focus on nuclear non-proliferation.

“Thailand and Southeast Asia will always be a special place to me and it is no small part due to the incredible people I have had the opportunity to meet during my work here. It truly is one of the most satisfying elements of being a diplomat,” Friele wrote in last week’s farewell email to his Thai contacts, myself included.

Perhaps it will be more enjoyable if and when these diplomats write a reveal-all memoir of their time in Bangkok in the years if not decades ahead for the posterity to read.

It’s no easy job trying to be a decent and respectable diplomat in a Land of Double Smiles and disorienting double speaks, even if you have good intentions and diplomatic immunity.

As a number of Western envoys – senior and junior – are completing their terms this summer and leaving Bangkok, they deserve a genuine, friendly adieu nevertheless.

Thank you, merci, danke schon. We will continue to try to bring out the best of what your embassies and diplomacy can be by engaging with all of you, not matter how elusive or self-contradictory the goal may be.