11 July 2024

Thailand’s decision to abstain from voting on a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution that rejected Russia’s annexation of four eastern regions in Ukraine, far from proving its neutrality, is actually counterproductive and severely dents its international credibility, many experts believe.  

A direct instruction went from the government in Bangkok to the Thai permanent representative at the UN Headquarters in New York to abstain from voting on the UNGA resolution on October 12 that called on all countries not to recognize Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, a senior official at the Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity.

“There is no other consideration behind the decision except to please Russia and President Vladimir Putin, who has been invited to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC] meeting in Bangkok next month,” he said.

The UN resolution aimed to defend the principle of the UN Charter since the regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia are temporarily occupied by Russia as a result of aggression, violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence.

While maintaining that Thailand holds sacred the UN Charter and international laws, Thai Permanent Representative to the UN Suriya Chindawongse explained that “Thailand chose to abstain from the vote because it takes place during an extremely volatile and emotionally charged atmosphere and situation, and that marginalizes the chance for crisis diplomacy to bring about a peaceful and practical resolution to the conflict.”

The diplomatic corps both in Thailand and the international community are disappointed by Thailand’s decision as it contradicts the country’s claim to embracing UN principles, retired diplomat Kobsak Chutikul said. “The resolution is not about choosing a side, but taking a stance on principle,” he argued.

Kobsak, who is also an advisor to the Senate’s committee on foreign affairs, said officials at the mission to the UN have full rights to explain to leaders in the capital about the principles and Thailand’s international credibility.

“I understand that the vote in favor of a resolution in March to reaffirm Ukrainian sovereignty was decided after intensive consultations to convince leaders in the capital to have a broader consideration,” Kobsak told Thai PBS World in an interview. “So why not this time?”

Thailand had voted in favor of a resolution to deplore the Russian aggression on March 2, and another to call for the protection of civilians and humanitarian access to Ukraine on March 24, but abstained from the vote to suspend Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council on April 7.

Children’s toys are displayed below a Ukrainian flag and placards during a demonstration against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the deaths of children in the city of Mariupol, outside the Russian embassy in Bangkok on April 20, 2022. (Photo by Jack TAYLOR / AFP)

Principles above Putin

Russia’s President Putin has been invited to join not only the APEC Summit in Bangkok on November 18-19 but also the G-20 summit in Indonesia’s Bali on November 15-16, as well as the ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh from November 10-13.

Unlike Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia have consistently voted in favor of UN resolutions in March as well as the latest one on October 12.

“Should we consult with other ASEAN members who are also hosting major summits in the same month as the APEC meeting?” Kobsak posed, adding, “Why can they vote to uphold UN principles, but we cannot?”

Thailand has no good reason to please Putin and lure him to the APEC meeting, since the summit includes 21 economies across Asia and the Pacific, which have a different stance on the Ukraine issue, he said.

The majority of APEC members voted in favor of the UN resolution rejecting the annexation, while Thailand, China and Vietnam abstained.

The government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has tried to portray itself as non-aligned, but its actions tell a different tale. Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh in August, but surprisingly declined to even take a phone call from his Ukrainian counterpart, according to an official at the Foreign Ministry.

However, Don said during the UNGA in New York last month that parties to the conflict in Ukraine can use three major international events in Southeast Asia in November to explore ways to end the crisis.

In comparison, Indonesia has shown far more political savvy in the Ukraine crisis. President Joko Widodo exercised his G20 chairmanship privilege in June to meet and invite both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the November summit in Bali.

Kobsak said Thai government leaders were mostly obsessed with hospitality at the APEC Summit in Bangkok, rather than its substance. “It seems we do mind how many VIP guests would join the party, never mind if they come to Thailand without any purpose,” he said.

The government has invited some non-APEC leaders too, including French President Emmanuel Macron and controversial Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as guests to Bangkok during the summit. They will stop by in Bangkok after the G20 summit, of which both France and Saudi Arabia are members.

A gathering of many world leaders would undoubtedly make headlines but it could also overshadow the substance of the APEC, said Kobsak.

The Opera House in Odessa, Ukraine, amid the Russian invasion of the country. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday officially requested that UNESCO add the historic port city of Odessa to its World Heritage List in a bid to protect it from Russian air strikes. (Photo by Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP)

Russia means business

Thailand has more economic interests with Russia compared to other ASEAN members. Bilateral trade with Russia last year was US$2.7 billion, up more than 40 percent from a year earlier. At a meeting on the sidelines of the APEC trade ministers’ meeting in May, Thai Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit and Russia’s Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov set a new target of $10 billion for next year.

The two countries sought ways to boost economic activities. Russia vowed to import more items, particularly food and automobiles, from Thailand, while Moscow would expand investment, according to Jurin. He told reporters that Thai banks have shown interest in Moscow’s proposal to introduce Mir — the Russian card payment system — for Russian tourists in Thailand as Russia has been banned from using the SWIFT international payment system after the Ukraine invasion.

In comparison, Russia’s trade with Indonesia was only US$415 million and with Cambodia a paltry US$94 million last year.

On the security front, Thailand has purchased some military hardware, such as man-portable air defense systems from Russia since 2008, with an accumulated value until last year of US$70 million. Vietnam is the biggest importer of weapons from Russia with an accumulated cost of $6.5 billion until last year, followed by Myanmar $1.6 billion, Malaysia $1.2 billion, and Indonesia $1.1 billion, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk