WHEN Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad stepped down last October, he brought an end to an era of South-east Asian politics. Tun Dr Mahathir was the last of a generation of core Asean leaders, including Singapore's Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Indonesia's Mr Suharto, to depart from office.
His longevity and relative economic success, combined with his bold and outspoken foreign policy, made him a leading voice for Asean, both within and beyond the region. Consequently, his retirement arguably left something of a vacuum in Asean leadership.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appears the most eager to seize this opportunity for a greater role in the region. The question is how effective he can be in augmenting his position.
Thai prime ministers have rarely bid for regional leadership. Unstable domestic politics, tenuous civil-military relations, a dogged southern separatist movement and protracted border conflicts have provided ample preoccupation for Mr Thaksin's predecessors.
Demonstrations and military intervention in 1992 undermined the country's image as a stabilising democracy, and the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit Thailand hard, derailing many years of progress towards a greater economic role in South-east Asia. Discomfort with English-language diplomacy and scant experience in foreign affairs also limited many Thai leaders' ambitions abroad.
Only with Mr Thaksin has Thailand seen a prime minister with the apparent mix of will and capability to exercise greater regional and sub-regional leadership. Mr Thaksin speaks English, exhibits comfort in front of the camera, and travels abroad more often than any Thai leader in recent history.
As a former communications magnate, he enjoys extensive contacts in the international business community. He also shows no lack of initiative.
In 2002, he launched the Asia Bond project to promote investment in Asian economies and the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, which engages 18 states from East Asia to the Middle East with Thailand as its hub.
HE HAS also played an active role in BIMST-EC - a cooperative grouping of countries along the rim of the Bay of Bengal - leading a free-trade initiative among member nations, heading last month's ministerial meeting in Phuket, and preparing to host the BIMST-EC summit in July. Further, he recently announced Thailand would forsake foreign aid in favour of its neighbours, signalling his intent to lead what Bangkok calls a Suvannaphum (Golden Land) of economic growth in peninsular South-east Asia, focusing primarily on Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
Thailand is also centrally positioned in the region, with extensive access to both the South China and Andaman seas. Alone in South-east Asia, Thailand enjoys substantial military ties with both China and the United States. Geography and culture also give it opportunities for influence in handling the difficult Myanmar issue and to provide added economic access to neighbouring Cambodia and land-locked Laos.
Planned intra-Asean roads and railways, a new international airport and seaport, and the planned trans-isthmian canal should further add to the country's economic and political centrality.
But with about one-eighth of Asean's population and one-fifth of its combined gross domestic product, Thailand is no regional hegemony. It does not have the size or demographic weight that have long made Indonesia the 'natural' leader of South-east Asia. It also faces ambivalent neighbours, wary of what they see as traditional Thai designs to dominate its immediate neighbourhood on the mainland peninsula.
Indeed, Mr Thaksin's opportunity for a larger regional role derives primarily from default. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri faces considerable challenges at home and an uncertain political future. She has demonstrated little apparent interest or ability in driving the Asean agenda, as her predecessors have. Filipino President Gloria Arroyo is similarly beset with domestic challenges and faces accusations of excessive closeness to Washington.
In most cases, the heads of Brunei and the four 'new' Asean states - Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar - lack the material resources to play primary roles in the region.
PRIME Minister Goh Chok Tong has quietly maintained Singapore's economic and military position, but the city-state's small size, ethnic composition and strategic vulnerability place restraints on the roles it can play abroad. Singapore has spearheaded Asean's engagement with Europe, North-east Asia and Latin America, and led the regional drive towards free-trade agreements with external powers.
But as he prepares to step down, Mr Goh continues to take a subtle, cautious approach to foreign policy.
The same is true of new Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who has made much of his intention to pursue a 'quieter' policy than his controversial predecessor. His approach may yield considerable dividends, but given his country's modest size and resources, a Malaysian leader less outspoken than Tun Dr Mahathir is unlikely to assume his stature in regional affairs.
By contrast, Mr Thaksin is highly outspoken and appears relatively unafraid to take political risks. Strong economic performance has won him unprecedented political popularity at home and places his Thai Rak Thai party in a very strong position for the coming general election.
Although widely accused of stifling political opposition, co-opting the media, and catering to big business interests, he appears to have achieved at least short-term dominance on the Thai political landscape. Many believe Mr Thaksin is attempting to fashion a political order akin to that in Singapore or Malaysia, in which one dominant party leads a democratic state with a heavy hand in security and economic affairs.
Mr Thaksin has also been controversial but strong-willed on the security front. His 'war on drugs' last year brought about the death of roughly 2,500 people and drew heavy fire from human-rights activists and the Democrat Party. But his unrelenting attack on the Thai drug trade has brought him more domestic support than opposition. He has also moved from a neutral posture in the war on terror to a strong supporter of the Bush-led agenda.
Mr Thaksin's ambition, economic success and relatively strong domestic position make him the most likely Asean leader to seek a greater regional voice in the post-Mahathir period.
It is highly unlikely that Thailand will ever achieve the primacy that Indonesia enjoyed at selected points in Asean's history; it's also improbable that Mr Thaksin will take on the same degree of vocal leadership that Tun Dr Mahathir sometimes exercised.
He will not be able to push Indonesia and Malaysia to back major political or security initiatives, and he will not dominate Asean economic expansion, but Thailand is well positioned to enhance its role as the leading mainland node in the regional political system. He can also play a vocal and instrumental role in coordinating economic and security initiatives among like-minded countries inside and outside of the region.
For Singapore, a modest rise in Thailand's regional influence could prove a blessing. The two countries share basic free-market ideology and close military ties. Their views on a number of key political issues, such as free trade, managed free-market economics, terrorism, American and Chinese regional influence, domestic law and order and the Myanmar question are roughly aligned.
Singapore may benefit from a larger neighbour willing to take the lead and, occasionally, the brunt of other countries' criticism in pushing its agenda. As Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong prepares to take the reins, he will face the same dilemmas his father did in asserting the nation's interests.
A modest reorientation of the South-east Asian power structure and development of a stronger mainland node may prove even more conducive than the old 'Asean core' to the pursuit and realisation of Singaporean interests.