BANGKOK – Moscow is trying to profit by offering weapons, investment, tourism and diplomatic support to Thailand and its other best friends in Southeast Asia, to buffer Russia’s international losses caused by US-led sanctions against its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s latest success surfaced on April 7 when Bangkok joined 57 other nations and abstained from voting at the United Nations General Assembly when it suspended Moscow from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
“Thailand is deeply sorry about the loss of life, and is gravely concerned about the escalating conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, and believes urgent actions are needed to address the allegations about human rights violations,” by Russia during its war in Ukraine, said Thailand’s Ambassador to the UN Suriya Chindawongse.
Other Southeast Asian abstentions included Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Thailand – a non-NATO US treaty ally – declined on February 28 to obey an unusually pointed, public demand by 25 Bangkok-based European ambassadors telling the government to condemn the invasion.
“We appreciate the balanced position of the Royal Thai government,” said Bangkok-based Russian Ambassador Evgeny Tomikhin, unveiling the Kremlin’s complex maneuvering.
“We have no political dispute,” Tomikhin told reporters.
“We need to keep a balance,” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters, explaining why he rejected their demand.
Coincidentally and also on February 28, Thai government officials on Phuket island, Thailand’s international tourist playground, hosted a visit by Ambassador Tomikhin.
The Russian delegation reportedly suggested upgrading links between luxurious, beach-blessed Phuket and Russia’s relatively prosperous northeast Kamchatka peninsula to benefit both countries.
Thailand is being especially gracious to Russia because in July the two countries expect to celebrate the 125th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
That link is esteemed among Thailand’s ruling right-wing royalists and others because it began with intimate personal ties between the then-Siamese and Russian royal families during Tsar Alexander III’s reign in Moscow.
The royal connection
In 1891, three years before becoming the next tsar, Nicholas II traveled through Bangkok and met Siam’s King Chulalongkorn.
In 1897, King Chulalongkorn visited the newly enthroned Tsar Nicholas II in St Petersburg and they established diplomatic relations.
“The King’s close personal ties with the Royal House of Russia, where he sent one of his sons, Prince Chakrabongse, to study for eight years [including at a military school] directly helped Siam vis-a-vis French and British colonialist ambitions,” the Royal Thai Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, said on its website.
While there, the prince married a Russian woman.
Russia initially provided diplomatic support, bolstering Thailand against 19th century French and British colonialists before Siam renamed itself Thailand.
But Nicholas II appeared to side with France after 1902, causing Russia’s relations with Thailand to wane.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand attracted thousands of Russian tourists.
Luring them back is part of Thailand’s economic plan to resurrect its wrecked international tourism industry.
Many Russians now in Thailand, or hoping to arrive, cannot directly pay hotel and other travel bills or business investments via the SWIFT international banking system because of US sanctions.
But they can enjoy China’s UnionPay transfers, which are used in Thailand, Russia and elsewhere.
Some Thai banks customarily issue UnionPay debit cards to Thai and foreign clients, alongside Visa and MasterCard.
Russia exports steel, scrap metal, fertilizers, minerals, synthetic rubber, diamonds and paper to Thailand.
Thailand sends Russia sugar, rice, gems, clothes, canned food and furniture.
Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand endorsed a recent United Nations General Assembly resolution that demanded Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine.”
Despite Myanmar’s ruling junta voicing support for Russia, Myanmar’s toppled government-in-exile’s remaining UN ambassador was able to vote for the resolution.
The one-party regimes in Vietnam and Laos abstained.
Both countries’ communist nationalists achieved victory with Soviet military assistance during the 1965-75 US-Vietnam war and received more aid during the 1980s.
Since 1995, Vietnam has splurged on Russian weapons, including submarines and fighter jets, buying US$8 billion in Russian military hardware and turning Moscow into Hanoi’s biggest weapons supplier.
Earlier this year, Hanoi and Moscow celebrated the 20th anniversary of their economic Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
More recently, Vietnam and Ukraine marked their 30th anniversary of relations.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, appears wary of trying to circumvent US-led sanctions and may cancel plans to buy Russian weapons.
Duterte’s warning on Putin
“Putin is my friend. He is a personal friend,” Duterte said on March 17.
“Europe will die if Russia wreaks havoc … it would be better to die at the first blast” of a nuclear war, Duterte said, according to the Philippines’ Inquirer.
Two weeks earlier, Duterte said: “Putin is suicidal … if he loses face here, he will go berserk.”
Muslim-majority Indonesia considered buying squadrons of Russian SU-35 fighter jets, but switched to Western manufacturers during international brinkmanship weeks before the invasion.
Reacting to the Russia-Ukraine war, Indonesia’s foreign ministry said Jakarta was affirming “the territorial integrity of a country must be adhered to, and condemning any action that clearly constitutes a violation of the territory and sovereignty of a country.”
Tiny, wealthy Singapore took Southeast Asia’s hardest stance and copied some US sanctions barring transactions with top Russian financial institutions.
“Singapore strongly condemns any unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext,” Singapore’s foreign ministry said.
“We reiterate that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine must be respected.”
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. – Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York and Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks are available by clicking here.