| Vajpayee addressing the Thai National Assembly on Thursday. (PTI)
Bangkok, Oct. 9: Atal Bihari Vajpayee looked east today and saw a “Ram Rajya” that was far more pleasant than what lies in the west.
Bangkok — the bridgehead in India’s “Look East” policy — played the perfect host to the Prime Minister and served up some “firsts” by throwing open the doors of the Thailand parliament and inaugurating a landmark building for holding talks.
Business was on top of the mind, too. Five pacts, including a free trade agreement that will eliminate all tariffs between the two countries by 2010, were signed.
With the growing economic clout of China and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism weighing on its mind, Thailand went out of its way to court India.
The Koofah Building — the Thai equivalent of Delhi’s Hyderabad House where talks are held with foreign leaders — was inaugurated so that Vajpayee could hold official talks with his Thai counterpart Thaksin Shinawatra there.
The extraordinary treatment did not end there. The Prime Minister became the first foreign leader to address the Thai National Assembly, an honour that was not lost on Vajpayee.
He acknowledged this, saying: “It is a symbol of the traditional ties and cultural affinities between our two countries and an expression of your (Thai) warm friendship and gracious hospitality.” Vajpayee also described Thailand as “Ram Rajya”.
The Prime Minister did not come up with any sobriquets for his western neighbour but he did make a thinly-veiled reference in interviews to the Thai media.
He said the Indo-Thai free trade agreement would work but such initiatives in South Asia have not made much progress “solely because of the unreasonable obstructions of one South Asian country”.
Asked why Thailand was wooing India, foreign minister Yashwant Sinha was modest. “It is mutual as both countries find a lot of commonalities between them and a huge potential for co-operation in several areas of mutual benefit.”
Thailand is an important member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which India is keen to have closer ties with, and is also part of two groupings floated by Delhi. Thailand is part of the Ganga-Mekong project which was launched to promote co-operation in the region and involves Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, besides India.
It is also a key player in the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Co-operation (Bimstec) grouping.
India is interested in improving its air, road and rail connectivity with Southeast Asia, and Thailand features prominently in its plans. “The discussions were very fruitful and constructive. It reflected a sincere desire to move the relationship forward,” Sinha said.
The interaction between the two sides, which began with a “four eyes” — or restricted — meeting between Shinawatra and Vajpayee, later extended to delegation-level talks. The accords signed cover co-operation in agriculture and biotechnology and visa exemption for diplomats.
The two countries also agreed to co-operate in fisheries, have regular cultural exchanges and set up cultural centres in each other’s capitals. They have agreed to enhance investment in food processing and information technology.
Shinawatra is worried about the rise of fundamentalism in south Thailand, which has a predominantly Muslim population. He is particularly concerned about the Jemaah Islamiah, which reportedly carried out the October 2002 Bali bombings in which over 200 people were killed.
The Thai Prime Minister discussed the issue with his Indian counterpart at length. He referred to the recent arrest in Thailand of Hambali, the alleged head of Jemaah Islamiah operations.
He also assured Vajpayee that he would not allow Thailand to be “misused” by anyone for anti-Indian activities. For years, the country has been a refuge for Northeast insurgents and key figures from the Mumbai underworld.
Delhi and Bangkok have a joint working group on counter-terrorism, but Indian officials are happy that Thailand has chosen to tackle the problem more seriously than before.
Delhi has responded by offering to help Bangkok in space technology and has agreed to deeper defence co-operation.