Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thailand's “Roving Buakeaw" Project

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Thailand initiated an innovative project called the – “Roving Buakeaw Project” - that allows the government to take account of public opinion when formulating foreign policy. The project is led by the Foreign Minister who along with senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs goes to the people to listen on various issues with potential impact on Thai foreign policy. This is an attempt to engage and include Thai citizens from all walks of life, especially in the border provinces in shaping Thai foreign policy. Town halls, local temples, provincial schools etc serve as meeting sites and “information collected is taken into consideration in formulating foreign policy if and when appropriate.”

The Thai ministry of foreign affairs describe that the main activities of the project include, “informal discussion on issues of international affairs affecting the life such as trading and consular service as well as roving passport services.” People from the selected provinces also have the opportunity to participate through local radio stations via live broadcasts. Issues discussed include trading along the border, labor issues, tourism etc.

Apart from top echelons of the ministry, participants include Members of Parliament, businessmen, member of the local Chambers of Commerce, local media, local government officials, non-profits and civil society etc. In Southeast Asia, Thailand remains a dynamic state when it comes to foreign policy. It was one of the first states to accept the reality of a rising China and engage the Chinese aggressively despite US being the preeminent power in East Asian affairs. Historically too, Thailand was the only country in the whole of Asia to have never been colonized despite never being a great power. The “Roving Buakew Project” along with other such projects like “Young Ambassador of Virtue,” are wonderful initiatives to give ‘common people’ a direct say in formulating foreign policy. See this link for a presentation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand.

Suggestions/Critiques welcome.

- Madhur

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Public Diplomacy: The potential for India in East Asia

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Beginning of 2010 saw India aggressively engaging major East Asian countries. Apart from state visits by leaders of South Korea, Japan and Malaysia; Indian navy led 13 navies from the region in the ’Milan 2010’ anti terror, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise in the Indian Ocean. India seems to be gradually figuring in geopolitical East Asian scheme of things even though geographically it’s not a part of it.

In a symbolic gesture that signifies the importance India attaches to East Asia, the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, was the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26th. While talks with Japan and South Korea centered around trade, economic and nuclear cooperation, talks with the Malaysian Prime Minister Sri Mohammad Najib Tun Abdul Razak also focused on reaching a bilateral agreement on culture and tourism apart from means to an early conclusion of CECA (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement).

While bilateral ties seem to be strengthening with East Asia, people to people connect seems to be minimal between both regions. The Malaysian prime minister did in fact admit this when he said, “for ties to be binding and meaningful, it is imperative to have the strongest people-to-people relationship.” Mr Najib said that Malaysia intended to improve its visa regime to facilitate travel of business persons and tourist to his country. He also called for improving connectivity through additional flights to either country and to elsewhere around the world and to establish a bilateral CEO forum for business leaders from both countries to discuss common issues. During his stay, Chennai also signed a “sister city” pact with Kuala Lumpur. Unlike Japan and Korea, Malaysia also has a strong Indian diaspora.

While the Look East policy is bearing fruit for India, people to people contact/exchanges need to be strongly cultivated given the geographical proximity and factors like shared history and demographics. The potential of India’s North East, which is culturally & geographically closer to Southeast Asia than rest of India, should also be tapped for better ‘people to people connect’. India’s domestic politics, dominated by the northern states is also partly responsible, which for reasons historic and cultural is obsessed with India’s western border and people to people ties with Pakistan. Joseph Nye, in his British Council Parliamentary Lecture on 20 January 2010, “Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century,” argued that “in an information age when power is more broadly distributed and less hierarchical than in earlier ages” there is some merit in a two way communication between societies to complement state policy. It’s a good time for India to take stock of its soft power reserves in East Asia and leverage it for the preeminent role it is destined to play in Asia in the 21st century.

Suggestions/Critiques welcome.


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