Shortly after being appointed Thailand’s new foreign minister in early September, Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara made a telling remark: “We want the Thai people to feel that the foreign ministry is contributing to their lives.”
Sok Chenda Sophea, Cambodia’s new foreign minister, appointed a few days before Parnpree, told his new ambassadors: “All of you should work to represent the nation and enhance the Kingdom’s prestige, especially in areas like diplomacy, economics, food, sports and the arts. These are the focus of the new government’s foreign policy.”
The two new foreign ministers bear a striking resemblance. Neither are career diplomats. Parnpree, whose father and grandfather were prominent in the foreign ministry, instead rose through the ranks of the commerce ministry under the Shinawatra sibling’s governments and then became chairman of the state oil company PTT.
Sok Chenda cut his teeth in the tourism ministry in the 1990s. Parnpree served as chairman of the Thailand Board of Investment. Sok Chenda was head of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, the country’s investment board, from 1997 until this year. Parnpree was head of a negotiation team for the creation of a free trade zone with India. Sok Chenda headed the Cambodian Special Economic Zones Board. Parnpree studied public administration at the University of Southern California. Sok Chenda studied economics at the University of Aix en Provence.
Moreover, both are unlike their predecessors. Don Pramudwinai, a career diplomat and foreign minister under the years of Prayut Chan-ocha’s military-run government, was often accused of putting geopolitics, chiefly relations with Beijing, ahead of more balanced, economics-focused policy, as well as for conducting “cowboy diplomacy” over the Myanmar crisis that badly dented ASEAN unity.
Another charge against Don was that, because he was appointed by a junta that had just taken power in a coup, he “spent a large part of his time explaining when, how, and to what extent his country would return, or has returned, to democracy.” As Benjamin Zawacki added, “His tenure has been marked by a conservative and defensive posture rather than one of enterprise or ambition.”
Similar accusations have been leveled at Cambodia’s former foreign minister. Prak Sokhonn, who was quick to lash out against the perceived Western interference in Cambodia’s domestic affairs, was more aligned with Beijing than some officials in the economic ministries liked, and, one hears, not entirely trusted by the former prime minister Hun Sen. Indeed, Hun Sen is believed to have ignored Prak and the foreign ministry by condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Economics at the center
Parnpree and Sok Chenda are new brooms, appointed to refashion their ministries away from a defensive posture on their relations with China and a fixation with stoking geopolitical tensions, and towards a more sustainable, front-foot policy that puts economics at the center. As one Thai newspaper put it, Parnpree is “expected to impart a new momentum to the country’s foreign policy with a strong emphasis on exploring economic dimensions of bilateral and multilateral relationships.”
A Cambodian analyst has argued, “To maintain economic development, Cambodia cannot become subject to US or Western economic sanctions. Maintaining economic development may be Cambodia’s main priority under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Manet. This appears to be the case with the appointment of Sok Chenda Sophea as the minister of Foreign Affairs.”
These ideas aren’t radical. Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand’s foreign minister between 2001 and 2005, sought to create “CEO ambassadors”. Surin Pitsuwan, a predecessor, established a “Team Thailand” approach, with diplomats supposed to represent the nation as much as the foreign ministry. But the return to a more stable, stripped-down foreign policy makes sense as Thailand and Cambodia undergo political change.
Thailand has its first civilian, democratically elected government again for more than a decade. Cambodia has just undergone a once-in-a-lifetime generational succession of its ruling elites, with almost the entire old guard resigning in August to make way for a younger generation, mostly the children of that old guard.
Neither Parnpree nor Sok Chenda are big characters. Indeed, they’re rather bureaucratic. And they are on the senior end of the age spectrum. At 66, Parnpree is one of the oldest in the new Thai cabinet. Sok Chenda, aged 67, is the oldest of Cambodia’s important ministers. (He’s 20 years older than the PM.) They are also excellent counterparts to their prime ministers. Srettha Thavisin, the Thai premier, is a businessman at heart.
Although Hun Manet rose through the ranks of the military, he studied economics and played a guiding role in the companies owned by his wife. Parnpree and Sok Chenda appear happy to defer much of the more razmataz foreign policy, such as showing up for international summits, to their prime ministers. Srettha, the self-styled “salesman”-in-chief, clearly likes traveling around the world and meeting foreign leaders, and posing for rather ingratiating and embarrassing selfies with them.
Cambodia’s ruling party obviously wants Hun Manet to be front-and-center of Cambodia’s engagement abroad, a role similar to the one played by his father. As such, having nose-to-the-grindstone foreign ministers makes sense alongside globetrotting premiers.
Experienced foreign policy thinkers
In part, too, the two new foreign ministers are also designed to appease the private sectors, especially as Cambodia and Thailand have untested and unsteady governments; Thailand in the form of an odd coalition and Cambodia with its dynastic succession of Hun Manet and almost the entire cabinet. It’s not quite the Biden administration’s evocation of a “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class” but it’s not far off.
How the new foreign ministers translate their briefs into action remains to be seen. In fact, we probably might not see too much of them. Sok Chenda hasn’t been as publicly active as one might have expected since his appointment in August. That may be because Hun Manet needed the limelight when he visited Beijing or New York.
But it may also be, I hear, because he’s slowly purging the foreign ministry of those officials who felt their job was to play-act at geopolitics or who simply aren’t up to the job. He has brought in some experienced foreign policy thinkers as secretaries.
And he has proposed reforms to the institutional structure of the ministry, including higher wages for diplomats, which may go some way of ending the practice of people buying ambassadorships.
Call it boring, but it seems likely that Parnpree and Sok Chenda will steer their ministries and ambassadors away from controversy or grand statements. That means a greater respect for ASEAN and multilateralism, and a more convivial policy of boosting trade and investment.
David Hutt is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS), the Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat, and writes analysis pieces for several newspapers and magazines. He has covered Southeast Asian politics since 2014. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of Radio Free Asia.