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June 24, 2017

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Thaksin's man oversteps his duties

BANGKOK -- Thai foreign policy in the past year has been dominated by the performance of Surapong Tovichakchaikul. The foreign minister has also doubled as deputy prime minister and, since early December, as chief of the Center for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO), dealing with the anti-government protests. The many tasks Surapong has been given — despite the availability of more suitable candidates — speaks volumes for Thaksin Shinawatra's deep personal trust in the man. This is a blessing for Surapong, as it confirms him as a leading figure in Thaksin's inner circle. For the country, though, it's a curse.

His latest role as a security chief is the most intriguing, because it fits his character and behavior. He was typically stern, with heavy-lidded eyes during his latest public statement on the situation in Bangkok, delivered at Royal Thai Police Headquarters. Rather than seeking to reassure his audience with constant eye contact, he grimly followed his prepared text. The image was mean and direct, especially when he accused largely peaceful protesters of breaking the law and using violence against security forces.

For the past year, Surapong has effectively personalized Thai diplomacy, facilitating Thaksin's life in exile by working both publicly and privately to ensure the former premier can travel unhindered. Thai ambassadors stationed in key capitals also provide diplomatic services to Thaksin. Last October, Surapong even asked the Japanese Foreign Ministry to issue Thaksin an entry visa to Japan while he was in Seoul. Tokyo was brave enough to say no.

In order to protect the Yingluck government, he also urged the Bangkok-based diplomatic community — very much to their bewilderment — to condemn the protesters and back the government's action against them as well as support the Feb. 2 election plan.

During his first briefing as CAPO chief to the diplomatic corps and international organizations on Dec. 2, Surapong sprang a surprise. He urged the international community to intervene in Thai politics to help boost the government's legitimacy. Furthermore, he had initially planned to ask the United Nations Security Council to take action against the street riots. It was a bit naive and far-fetched to flag the idea, but it demonstrated how far Surapong would go to serve Thaksin.

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