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March 25, 2017

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Thailand and Philippines are like twins

The best description of the Thailand-Philippine friendship would be as twins separated at birth. Both countries are close allies of the U.S. and each has their ups and downs. They fought side by side as members of the U.N.-led international forces in the Korean War.

During much of their modern history, they shared similar unsavory narratives — trying to get rid of squatter areas, to reduce the national income gap as well as overcoming the "middle-income trap." In addition, during the 1970s and 1980s, their overseas workers suffered the same plights with low levels of help from home. But their common aspirations are much bigger and overarching — to be the freest and most democratic members of ASEAN.

Thais and Filipinos appreciate each other's political experience in exercising their people power. In particular, they shared a common desire to topple dictatorial regimes and the process was indeed transformational. The Filipinos learned from the Thais how to stage long-lasting protests by adding attractions such as entertainment and good food. The Thais followed the Filipino campaigns of mass mobilization with strong and deliverable messages. Together, their people have made public participation in the democratic process a norm within the ASEAN context.

Indeed, both are emotionally driven peoples and often very passionate — never a dull moment on the streets of either capital. Their peoples smile and laugh even when they are suffering but they differ when it comes to making conversation. Filipinos are more talkative and blunt. Thais, in contrast, are more circumspect and shy. But most importantly, they are both happy-go-lucky nations.

After the failed coup in 1987, Thailand was the first to give support to the Corazon Aquino government and immediately pledged to attend the ASEAN Summit there to show solidarity with the civilian government.

Without the unwavering support of the Philippines, the founding of ASEAN would not have been possible. During tense negotiations at the Bang Saen Resort ahead of the signing of the Bangkok Declaration on Aug. 8, 1967, Foreign Minister Narciso Ramos, the father of former president Fidel, was instrumental in getting the discussions going. He frequently fired up conversations and created an atmosphere of camaraderie among the founding fathers, who were at times persistent to the point of stubborn in getting their views across.

Above all, their press and media culture are also very similar — free, but from time to time printing unsubstantiated news and information.

Media organizations and journalists from both countries have a longstanding history of cooperation and knowledge-sharing. Thai journalists honed their investigative skills with their Filipino friends and vice versa.

Filipinos working for civil society groups and grassroots organizations are prominent figures here. Apart from managerial positions, they are the largest group, with about 17,000 Filipinos residing in Thailand. They help to focus attention on the environment, the rights of women and children, to name but a few. Without Filipino high-octane campaigners, human rights and gender equality awareness in this country would not have reached the level witnessed today, especially for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual group.

When President Rodrigo Duterte begins his two-day visit today, he will carry all of this past goodwill and feel-good feeling to build on future ties with Thailand.

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