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Trade talks with Thailand on pause: New Thai envoy

By Kristen Shane      

Vijavat Isarabhakdi says Canada wants to wait until Thai elections.

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Canada has paused trade talks with Thailand while the southeast Asian country remains under an unelected government, said the country’s new ambassador last week.

“[The Canadian] government I think prefers to wait until we have elections before moving ahead with the talks. So that’s why not much is taking place right now,” said Vijavat Isarabhakdi in a March 26 interview.

The Globe and Mail reported in December, based on leaked government memo dated Dec. 12, that Trade Minister Ed Fast’s office was pushing ahead with exploratory trade talks with Thailand—an initial study which may precede formal free trade negotiations—despite advice from departmental officials not to do so.

The Globe reported that bureaucrats advised in October against finishing the exploratory talks and starting formal trade talks “in the absence of a democratically elected government.”  They recommended “any engagement on free trade agreement exploratory discussions only occur at the working level and on a responsive basis.”

Thailand’s military seized power last May and the general who led the takeover is now in charge of a military-affiliated government.

“On December 5, officials were informed that the office of the Minister of International Trade did not agree with officials’ recommendations and asked that the free trade agreement exploratory process be completed by the summer of 2015,” read the documents quoted in the Globe.

When asked whether it turns out Mr. Fast followed officials’ recommendation after all, Mr. Isarabhakdi said: “I suppose, because things are paused right now. But this is just, I think, a matter of months before we have an election.”

He said he hopes to see elections in late 2015 or early 2016. In the meantime, the country’s constitution is being revamped, a process Mr. Isarabhakdi described as a step toward the return to democracy.

The foreign minister last May, John Baird, condemned the military coup and called for a return to civilian rule “as soon as possible.”

The Canadian government “has no plans to launch free trade negotiations with Thailand at this time,” wrote Caitlin Workman, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, in a March 30 emailed response to questions. She wouldn’t respond directly when asked to confirm that exploratory trade talks are paused because Canada wants to wait until Thai elections, and, if so, when that position was decided.

Thailand’s prime minister on March 31 asked the country’s king for permission to lift martial law, which has been in place since before the coup, Reuters reported. But critics fear it will be replaced with a law that could prove worse.

"This is something very unique and worrying and it is not going to improve the rights situation and ongoing repression," Human Rights Watch spokesperson Sunai Phasuk was quoted as saying in the BBC.

Envoys to US, Canada swapped

Mr. Isarabhakdi was speaking just before he was due to present his credentials to the governor general on March 31.

He had been Thailand’s ambassador to the United States for 16 months but swapped jobs with the country’s ambassador to Canada in February. Pisan Manawapat had been Thailand’s top representative in Ottawa for only about 14 months.

A 2014 report in the Bangkok Post, quoting an unnamed foreign ministry source, suggested that amid a larger post-coup diplomatic shuffle, Thailand’s new rulers thought Mr. Isarabhakdi was aligned with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and wasn’t doing an effective job in Washington persuading the US government to “tone down its position toward the coup” and explaining Thailand’s work against human trafficking, so they swapped him with his colleague in Canada. Mr. Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck, had been in power before the 2014 coup, and was this year impeached by the Thai legislative assembly.

“The post swap stems from a classic nepotism accusation,” reported the Post. It also noted that accusation may not be fair. “[T]he source said it had been an uphill task to convince the US to change its stand about the coup in Thailand.”

The military takeover has strained normally strong US-Thailand ties. Washington suspended millions of dollars in military aid, reported the Associated Press.

“About Washington, I think it’s perhaps not fair to say that I didn’t argue the case. I don’t come out and announce all the things that I do, but during the 16 months that I was there, I had very good access to the State Department,” said Mr. Isarabhakdi last week, adding that he gave many talks to the business and diplomatic community giving Thailand’s point of view.

And he rejected the perception that he is close to the former Shinawatra government. He said he’s a career diplomat, not a political appointee. He served as a non-political aide to politicians from two opposing parties.

“So I think there’s just speculation that I must be close to this party…but that’s not the case,” he said.

He called the report “not founded.”

Besides talking to Canadians about the political changes in his country, Mr. Isarabhakdi wants to boost Canadians' awareness of Thailand through more high-level government visits, tourist travel and trade.

As part of the exploratory talks, the Thai authorities commissioned a study by a Thai university that showed a trade deal would be beneficial, said the ambassador. There’s more room to grow trade ties between the two, he said.

“We are both quite important trading countries in our own respective regions. But we are trading with someone else. We’re not trading as much with each other, even though there’s a lot that we have to offer one another.”

He noted Canada’s strengths in renewable and non-renewable energy as well as timber, while Thailand is a major food exporter including of canned seafood, fruit and rice to Canada.

He just returned from a trip to Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, where he attended a networking meeting for businesspeople from Canada and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-country club, and a first-ever Thailand-Canada business meeting.

Mr. Isarabhakdi’s wife and daughter are both back in the US, where his daughter is finishing up Grade 8 at the Washington International School before heading to Canada in June.

The envoy, previously served as the ambassador and deputy permanent representative of Thailand to the UN in Geneva, and first secretary at the Thai embassy in Washington in the 1990s. He also studied in the US at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with Tufts University and worked as a congressional fellow for two congressmen.


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