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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

Diary of a Prime Minister
Keeping up with Thailand's Chuan Leekpai
By ALEJANDRO REYES Auckland

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Diary of a Prime Minister
Keeping up with Thailand's Chuan Leekpai

Days of Diplomacy
The East Timor crisis showed APEC's worth -- and also its limits

The Rest of the Meeting
A summary of how the agenda progressed

FEATURES
APEC '99
Asiaweek Senior Correspondent Alejandro Reyes' dispatches from the Auckland conference

It took a political crisis to prove the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum's real worth. The turmoil in East Timor never made it on to the official agenda at APEC's annual meeting in Auckland -- after all, only economic topics are allowed. But throughout the week, East Timor was the central focus. "I can't think of how an issue could have had more attention," acknowledged New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, this year's host. While Shipley rejected the idea that APEC should take on political questions, she stressed that "as APEC does create an opportunity for leaders to come together, important bilateral matters can be addressed. It is in the mutual benefit of APEC economies and their people that these opportunities are taken up."

APEC's sideline summitry is the organization's saving grace. It is the part of the annual gathering that gets little coverage -- unless you happen to be Bill Clinton meeting Jiang Zemin. To get a taste of what it's like to be part of this behind-the-scenes diplomatic jamboree, Asiaweek trailed Thailand Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai over the first 24 hours of his stay in Auckland. Chuan's schedule was as punishing as that of any of the other 20 leaders in town. Without police escorts for his motorcade and the downtown streets blocked off, the PM would have had trouble keeping to his tight timetable. Highlights from Chuan's packed diary follow:

Chuan gets a head start when his Air New Zealand commercial flight from Sydney (where he had a three-and-a-half-hour stopover) touches down five minutes early in the late afternoon of Sept. 11. Looking fresh despite his overnight trip from Bangkok, he is conveyed down an escalator to an airline lounge. After a 20-minute rest -- while his compact delegation's luggage is hauled into waiting Ford cars -- Chuan and his party are whisked into the city in a convoy led by five police motorcycles. The prime minister's limousine is crimson, a welcome change from the conventional black. At the Singaporean-owned Carlton Hotel, Chuan is escorted to his tenth-floor suite. The rest of the evening is taken up with dinner in a Thai restaurant and briefings with his senior officials and ministers.

The real work begins the next morning. An "order of the day" summary of events prepared by the Thai delegation is five pages long. First up for Chuan is an 8:15 meeting with Indonesian economy minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita in a room adjacent to the PM's suite. Chuan ranks higher so it is Ginandjar who calls on him. In any bilateral, one party plays host. Just who does depends on protocol (rank -- head of government or head of state? -- and length of time in office are two factors considered) and who invites whom. Sometimes, as with China-U.S. summits, the two sides select a neutral venue.

Ginandjar arrives on time. He and Chuan confer, with only an interpreter and Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, who takes notes, in the room. The main topic is East Timor. Thailand currently holds the chairmanship of the ASEAN standing committee, and Chuan proposes sending a senior minister to Jakarta (it turns out to be Surin who flew to the Indonesian capital from Auckland on Sept. 13) to discuss the situation. Outside, two New Zealand policemen block the front of the door. A Thai foreign ministry official waiting in the corridor laments the hectic schedule. "Even I cannot follow my boss everywhere," he explains. "Today is the busiest day."

Half an hour later, the PM boards his car for the nearby Hyatt Regency hotel. The lobby is teeming with delegations -- Russians, Vietnamese, Mexicans, and Filipinos. In a yellow wall-papered lounge on the ground floor, Chuan arrives precisely on time to be greeted by host John Howard, Australia's prime minister. Another 25 minutes later, Chuan is out. He crosses the bustling lobby and takes refuge in a function room flanked by the Mexican delegation's suite and Russia's. Philippine President Joseph Estrada is meeting counterpart Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, while Russian PM Vladimir Putin is hosting Vietnam premier Phan Van Khai. Mobile phone ditties sound constantly. Diplomats, junior officials and policemen mingle in the carpeted hallway looking as if they are guests at an impromptu cocktail party. Thank goodness for everyone that smoking isn't allowed.

In his holding room, Chuan sits in one corner, given plenty of space by the dozen or so members of his party. Somebody goes for coffee, but it never arrives. The PM says little, preferring to sit pensively listening to the conversation. His advisers chat and joke, though there are intermittent periods of silence. Once Estrada and his party emerge from "Suite Mexico," the Thais are on the move again. They are next up on Zedillo's list. Half an hour later, Chuan is across town, striding into the Heritage Tower hotel. He has a bilateral on the twelfth floor with Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who has just finished with Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. After an ASEAN leaders' lunch at a posh social club, Chuan speeds back to his hotel, where Shipley is formally welcoming the delegates in the lobby. The official summit has begun.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home

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