UNGA resolution condemns Russia

The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that condemns Russia's referendums in regions within Ukraine's internationally-recognized borders, and demands it reverses its annexation declaration. (Photo: Twitter/UN News)

When Abstention Speaks Volumes: Thailand’s Turnaround in the UNGA


Thailand’s decision to abstain from the latest United Nations General Assembly resolution on rejecting Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories raises doubts about Bangkok’s commitment to international laws and norms.

On 12 October 2022, less than a week after the Kerch Strait bridge linking Russia with occupied Crimea was severely damaged in a massive explosion, the Kremlin received yet another blow to its so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.

In New York, 143 countries voted in favour of a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling on member states not to recognise Russia’s sham referendums in Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia last month and demanding that Moscow reverse its “attempted illegal annexation” of these four Ukrainian territories.

Although the UNGA resolution was non-binding, it was important in that its sponsors framed it as “defending the principles” of the UN Charter, including respect for all member states’ sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence. Russia has flagrantly violated these principles since it invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

Before discussing how the UN representatives for the countries of Southeast Asia voted on 12 October, it is worth recapping their previous voting behaviours at the UNGA on the Ukraine conflict.

Since Russia’s unprovoked invasion, the UNGA has passed four resolutions.

The first, on 2 March, “deplored” Russia’s aggression against its southern neighbour and called on Moscow to withdraw its forces immediately. Of the ten ASEAN member states, eight voted in favour, while Vietnam and Laos abstained. Singapore and Cambodia co-sponsored the resolution.

The second, on 24 March, called for the protection of civilians and humanitarian access to Ukraine. Again, Singapore and Cambodia co-sponsored the resolution. Seven ASEAN members voted in favour; Brunei, Laos and Vietnam abstained.

The third, on 7 April, voted to suspend Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Commission. Only two ASEAN members voted to back it, the Philippines and Myanmar (whose permanent representative at the UN is a holdover appointee from the previous National League for Democracy government, while the military junta which ousted it on 1 February 2021 has endorsed Russia’s invasion). Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand abstained, while Vietnam and Laos voted against the resolution.

For the latest resolution, seven ASEAN members voted in support, while Laos, Thailand and Vietnam abstained.

Vietnam and Laos have been consistent from the start in refraining from any vote deemed as critical of Russia’s actions. Both have close political and defence ties with Russia and do not want to impair their relations with Moscow.

But why did Thailand reverse its previous position and abstain in the latest vote?

The answer is almost certainly because Thailand will soon host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit from 18-19 November 2022.

Thailand wants to put on a good show for the 21 APEC members, a group which includes Russia. It will, after all, be the first major gathering of international leaders in Bangkok since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thailand does not want the conflict in Ukraine to spoil its party and has resisted pressure from some Western APEC members to disinvite President Vladimir Putin. Russia accepted the invitation but would not initially confirm if Mr Putin would fly to Bangkok.

It cannot have been sheer coincidence that on the same day as the UNGA vote, Moscow revealed that Mr Putin would attend the APEC summit in person. Perhaps Moscow had confirmed with Bangkok the Russian leader’s travel plans just prior to the UNGA vote in the hope and expectation that Thailand would not want to embarrass him or Russia. If so, the Kremlin’s calculations proved spot on.

Thailand’s vote at the UNGA, and those of Vietnam and Laos, flies in the face of these solemn commitments.

Thailand’s decision to abstain from the latest UNGA resolution is disappointing. Not only does Russia’s invasion grossly violate the UN Charter, it also breaches all of the principles Moscow has repeatedly endorsed during its three decades of engagement with ASEAN, including those in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (which Russia acceded to in 2004) and the numerous joint communiqués that ASEAN and Russia have issued since the latter became a Dialogue Partner in 1996.

For example, at the first ASEAN-Russia Summit in December 2005 in Kuala Lumpur, the two sides released a Joint Statement on a Progressive and Comprehensive Partnership which reaffirmed the “supremacy of international law, including such basic principles as respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States, non-interference into their internal affairs and the non-use of force or threat of force in violation of the UN Charter”. The same statement affirmed that the parties were “convinced that settlement of any international and regional conflict and crises should be carried out strictly in accordance with the UN Charter and other principles and norms of international law”.

Thailand’s vote at the UNGA, and those of Vietnam and Laos, flies in the face of these solemn commitments.

Thailand’s abstention is all the more surprising, given that in the nineteenth century, Britain and France illegally annexed parts of the Kingdom of Siam for their own colonies in Malaya and Indochina respectively, episodes that the Thais rightly remember with enormous indignation.

Does the UNGA vote tell us anything about Putin’s attendance at the other international summits to be held in Southeast Asia next month? The East Asia Summit (EAS) will take place in Phnom Penh on 11-13 November and the G20 Summit in Bali on 18-19 November.

Putin does not normally attend the EAS (having done so just once in person since Russia joined in 2011) so Cambodia’s UNGA vote will likely not bother Moscow. For the G20, Indonesian President Jokowi earlier indicated that Putin would attend the summit.

If that is true, Indonesia deserves credit for standing up for the UN’s and ASEAN’s principles at the UNGA. Thailand, on the other hand, may want to take a good look at itself in the mirror.


Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.