By Saksith Saiyasombut
Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra visited Germany and France last week, her first visit to Europe since she took office a year ago. While the trip was primarily aimed at improving economic ties and regaining confidence among investors from the two most important economies in the European Union for the Thai government, other issues, such as the still unstable political situation and the continuously deteriorating freedom of speech, were mentioned in passing at best.
Over the course of five days, Yingluck completed a packed itinerary with lots of meetings and shaking hands with government officials, dignitaries and business representatives. She was accompanied by her entourage, including Foreign Minister Surapong Towijakchaikul, and Suranand Vejjajiva, who now works for the government as her secretary-general. She also had 73 Thai private sector representatives in tow, underlining the main emphasis of this trip.
The first destination was the German capital Berlin, where she met with Chancellor Angela Merkel who greeted her with customary military honors at the Chancellery for a working lunch and a joint press conference – which was pretty much the only chance for the German press to see her. Not much was reported about it – despite the fact it is the first visit by a Thai Prime Minister to Germany since 1995 and the German-Thai diplomatic relations are celebrating their 150th anniversary, as emphasized by both leaders. That said, the German media generally pays little attention to Southeast Asia (unless it is about Burma and involves Aung San Suu Kyi),
And so the official website of the Chancellery was the only outlet where interested followers could see the full press conference, which is available in German only. In the 17 minutes long presser, the German leader outlined the economic ties between the two countries pointing out that Germany is the “most important economical partner in the EU” and with about “600 German companies” already in the Kingdom, not to mention a popular tourist destination. The most important and interesting issue during this press conference and the meeting in general was the call to speed up the process for an ASEAN-EU free trade agreement, something Merkel has been advocating for some time already.
Prime Minister Yingluck said the two leaders have “trust in each other” and that the two countries will expand their relations “on all issues” including democratization, rule of law and human rights – which was pretty much one of the very few times these three words have been mentioned publicly during this trip. In general, nothing much else was talked about and the interest by the German press was virtually non-existent, as there was only one question directed to Yingluck by a Thai journalist and the other German colleagues asking Chancellor Merkel about the Euro crisis and the situation in Syria – and also a female reporter gushing over the apparent women power present at the stage (we talked about Yingluck and the issue with feminism before here and here).
And with that there was subsequently very much nothing reported in the German media outlets and the rest of Yingluck’s stay in Germany can only be reconstructed via the official Flickr account of the Prime Minister (a great source for press photos licensed under Creative Commons btw!). Nevertheless, some interesting notes can be made from them: from giving a speech to a business forum, meeting with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, and meeting Thai citizens in Germany at the Thai Embassy and also at a Thai Buddhist temple during a short sojourn to Munich.
Yingluck also met with a group of German MPs dubbed the “Friends of Thailand” consisting of the German-ASEAN parliamentary group. But the picture also shows another familiar face: the grey-haired man left from the table with the water bottles is Michael Glos, MP of the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), who has been to Thailand earlier this year. Glos also belongs to a group of conservative MPs that have lobbied at the Foreign Ministry to revoke the entry ban of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last year and have been campaigning for a policy change towards Thailand with “Thaksin as a strong figure” (we reported).
On Thursday, Yingluck traveled to France to do essentially the same: meeting with President François Hollande to talk about economy and ASEAN and meeting with business representatives to drum the roll for French investors. However the small difference was the slightly higher media coverage in France: the Prime Minister gave interviews to Le Figaro – where she was also asked about the role of the non-democratic military, her usual denial over changing anything about lèse majesté and her rejection over the notion that she’s the puppet of her bigger brother – and a TV interview with France 24, recorded before her departure.
The trip ended on Sunday and a pleased Prime Minister announced on her own TV show that it was a good opportunity to build trust and goodwill towards Thailand and its economy. For the two European heavyweights, ASEAN is likely to be a majore economic partner in the not-so-distant future as both sides have strong interest in a free-trade agreement. However, the question remains about Thailand’s role because, contrary to what Yingluck told Merkel and Hollande, the political outlook for the Kingdom looks less than stable and still could drive investors away to regional neighbors, despite all the efforts to mask a long-simmering political crisis as a short-term problem. For the economic and political future, Thailands needs strong partners like the EU, but do these strong countries equally need Thailand that much?