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Thailand's Former Foreign Minister Looks to the FuturePhoto by Angilee Shah

Thailand's Former Foreign Minister Looks to the Future

Kantathi Suphamongkohn says he saw the coup coming, but does not yet know what his next move will be.

By Angilee Shah
Staff Writer

This article was first published in AsiaMedia.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Los Angeles --- Kantathi Suphamongkhon, armed with a yellow tie and yellow handkerchief in the pocket of his suit jacket, came to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on Monday to talk about politics in Thailand's post-coup state.

"Yellow is the color of His Majesty," he said. "I think the general feeling in Thailand was that His Majesty the King's role has continued to be a unifying role and we hope that from now on the divisiveness we saw in society can be placed in the past and we can move forward to reconciliation."

Suphamongkhon half-jokingly prefers to call himself the 39th foreign minister, rather than the former foreign minister, of Thailand. He prefers to talk about the future, rather than the divisive months leading up Thailand's Sept. 19 coup. Indeed, Suphamongkhon is in a peculiar situation. The military coup that ousted then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra also left Thaksin's cabinet appointees out of jobs. But Suphamongkhon said that after just over a year as foreign minister and five years as Thailand's trade representative, he welcomes the vacation.

This UCLA alumnus -- he got a bachelor's degree in political science there and holds a doctorate in international relations from UCLA's cross-town rival, the University of Southern California -- said that Thailand has been so divided this year that he instinctively knew a coup would happen.

While many factors drove the anxiety and heated debate in Thailand that led to the coup, Suphamongkhon says the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was the January sale of Shin Corp. The Shinawatra family sold its nearly 50 percent stake in the telecommunications conglomerate to Temasek Holdings, the investment arm of the Singaporean government. The sale of Shin Corp touched a lot of nerves; critics said Thaksin took advantage of his position to get tax breaks for his family's company and a larger ideological debate emerged about foreign ownership of a huge chunk of Thailand's telecommunications. Though Thaksin was cleared legally of any wrongdoings, mistrust and anger continued.

Suphamongkhon said the divisions in the country that surrounded Thaksin were greater than he had ever seen before. "I have never experienced that myself to that degree...when [Thaksin] would go around the country there would be two different groups, one opposing him, one in favor. They would have very strong arguments."

In the days leading up to the coup, Suphamongkhon kicked off a lengthy tour with a five-hour diplomatic stop in Tajikistan and then the Asia-Europe Meeting in Finland. Suphamongkhon continued on to Ireland and France, while the then-prime minister went to England and the U.N. General Assembly in New York. On Sept. 19, Suphamongkhon was in Paris for a Thailand-France cultural exhibition with Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Before leaving Thailand on Sept. 9, though, Suphamongkhon says he had a "gut feeling" that he would be relieved of his duties while abroad.

"It was the first time ever that when I was going on an official international trip that I actually searched for my California driver's license and took my California driver's license," he told AsiaMedia. "I had a feeling that something may happen that would make it possible for me to drive around myself -- because usually when I'm in an official visit I never have an opportunity to drive."

When foreign ministry officials told Suphamonghon that a coup had taken place he decided it would be best not to return to Thailand right away. Instead, he went to visit friends in Germany and, indeed, was able to drive for himself. One week later, he returned to Thailand and was greeted by the press at the airport.

"I told [military authorities] the exact flight number and everything. I told them I'd be open to help, if they needed," Suphamongkhon told a small group of UCLA faculty and students. "They said that everything is fine and there is no problem."

Suphamongkhon's political future is up in the air. When asked if he would resign from Thai Rak Thai as over 100 members have already done, Suphamongkhon said, "I haven't made any final decision yet. I felt that I was not going to be one of those who would rush to the door." But he adds, "As for the future, I will weigh things before making a decision."

Additional reporting by Amanda Natividad.

Read excerpts from Kantathi Suphamongkhon's talk with AsiaMedia and a small group of UCLA professors and students.

Center for Southeast Asian Studies