Nov 20, 2012

Thailand - Will Thaksin gain from state visit by Museveni?

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In contrast to this week's fanfare for Barack Obama of the United States and Wen Jiabao of China, the visit by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to Thailand went almost unnoticed last week.

It comes as no surprise that Thailand is courting the world powers. But the country's stand toward sub-Saharan Africa has raised some serious questions.

Diplomatic ties were established with Kampala in 1985, but Uganda suddenly became a visible and important friend of Thailand after former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra won and operated a five-year lotto concession in 2010.

Thaksin has an honourary job title with Global PS Lotto, a Dubai-based company with stakes held by Thai investors.

However, after a subsequent business feud between Thaksin and tycoon Pairoj Piempongsant, it remains unclear if Thaksin still has a say in the lotto business and other investments in Africa.

Before and after the collapse of his business partnership with Pairoj, Thaksin had become a fast friend of Museveni.

The recent discovery of one of the largest oil reserves in Africa has fuelled Museveni's hope of leading his nation out of poverty.

But the unexplored oil fields are located in environmentally fragile areas. Rampant corruption is another factor stalling exploration and production of oil in Uganda, which was initially scheduled to start this year.

As if on cue, Thaksin intervened to help a "friend" in need. He alerted the Thai energy industry about investment opportunities in Kampala. Thai diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the instruction came from "above" to hastily arrange an official visit for Museveni.

Thailand is neither the first nor the last country to wine and dine a foreign leader in order to strike a deal for black gold.

Under accepted diplomatic protocols, a leader pays a working visit in order to drum up support of one kind or another. In this case Museveni has made it clear he wants to seek new partners, preferably from Thailand, for oil exploration deals.

At Thaksin's whim, the government went overboard by extending an invitation for an official visit by Museveni, though there were virtually no state-to-state affairs to discuss.

The Ugandan Presidential Office even undertook a further step to brand Museveni's trip as a state visit. The African leader chose to travel abroad at the time when his country was under fire for human rights violations.

Unanswered questions and curious circumstances fuel doubts on whether the country or Thaksin will benefit from the welcome for Museveni.

First, the government billed the visit of the Ugandan president as official, but failed to arrange for a courtesy call to HM the King as head of state, or a designated royal representative.

Second, the Thai business community, particularly Thai Oil, paid due attention to Museveni but has no long-term plans to venture into Uganda.

Third, Thailand curiously opted to upgrade ties with Uganda despite an international outcry over human rights violations in the country. Museveni's has cracked down on opposition groups, whose plight has been likened to the Thai red shirts.

With the Pheu Thai government trying to seek "justice" for the red shirts, it has surprisingly turned blind to the bloodshed Museveni inflicted on his opponents.

Last month the United Kingdom suspended aid to Uganda in the face of rampant corruption. The United Nations Universal Periodic Review was critical of Uganda's compliance on human rights and gave two years for the situation to be rectified.

Avudh Panananda

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