Thailand’s Teetering Policy and Burma

Published on January 27, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

 

The Brunei Times – January 28, 2009

 

Thai’s new hope for Myanmar

 

There appears to be a new momentum of hope for the Burmese democratic movement when the newly sworn in Thailand Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, unveiled his country’s sketchy foreign policy on Burma.

 

In a maiden speech to the press corps at the Foreign Press Club in Bangkok on 14 January 2009, Abhisit said, “The goals of Western countries and the countries in this region for Myanmar are not different – we all want to see some changes.”

 

Although it is too early to make any speculation, Abhisit Vejjajiva’s message seems to take a slightly different approach from his predecessors Thaksin Shinawatra and Samak Sundaravej’s appeasement policy.

 

The geographical proximity and cultural affinity makes Thailand one of Burma’s major stakeholders in the entire region. Their shared economic interest and membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bring the two countries even closer.

 

Thailand shelters the largest number of Burmese expatriates in the region. The two countries have experienced a tumultuous period of civilian governments overthrown by military coup. The fundamental difference between the two, however, is that democracy was restored in Thailand, but not in Burma.

 

Thailand’s foreign policy on Burma has teetered in recent years. The Thai government was conspicuously sympathetic to the Burmese democratic struggle in the aftermath of the 1988 uprising. Hundreds and thousands of refugees were allowed into Thailand.

 

In its search for business partner and energy exploration, coupled by no sign of an immediate democratic change in Burma, Thailand reached out to the Burmese military junta which was also on the look out for international partners.

 

The ASEAN charter of “non-interference” has been used as an excuse to overlook the gross human rights violations of the Burmese military regime. Thailand’s appeasement policy culminated, in recent years, during Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai) government.

 

With regard to the regional bloc, Abhisit said, “ASEAN to be strong it has to have the credibility and respect from the international community. So what’s happening in Myanmar clearly affects the rest of the region – and I would just point out that it’s time for change. As far as we are concerned we need to get ASEAN to become more proactive…..”

 

Although the Burma issue occasionally came up at the ASEAN ministerial meetings, the regional bloc’s traditional engagement policy has not achieved substantive results to resolve the ethno-political crisis in the country.

 

The Thaksin government entered lucrative business deals with the Burmese military junta. The largely business-oriented diplomacy overshadowed any concerns for human rights abuses. After Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in September 2006, his government’s foreign policy was adopted and further advanced by the People’s Power government under Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who was a Thaksin loyalist.

 

The Democrat Party, which now heads the government, is seen friendlier to the Burmese democratic movement. During the years from 1997 to 2000, Chuan Leekpai Democrat government was at times critical of the Burmese military regime. Chuan’s refusal to visit Burma, as Prime Minister, was viewed a slap on the military junta.

 

Despite the political rhetoric, it will be unrealistic for the Thai government, regardless of which party is in power, to completely sideline the Burmese military junta. Like any other country, Thailand gives its national interest and security a priority, and not human rights or democratic reforms beyond its borders.

 

Among others, Thailand needs energy and gas from Burma. The Thai government cannot have access without engaging with the regime. This is one important reason why Abhisit implicitly stated that his government will pursue a “flexible engagement” policy.

 

The Burmese opposition and the international community should not expect much from the new government. The stability and sustainability of the government, amidst the simmering domestic politics, is also unpredictable. The People’s Power government was brought down by protests and a court ruling.

 

Some sort of a dual policy is expected from Abhisit’s administration. The government will occasionally not hesitate to speak up for human rights and democratic reforms, but with little impact or without involving pragmatic actions. The business partnership between the two countries is also expected to continue.

 

The overall approach of the Democrat Party, if it survives long enough to complete its term, will be friendlier to the Burmese opposition than the former Thai Rak Thai Party or People’s Power Party. The government is also likely to be more open to consultations with the international community to this effect.

 

Meanwhile, if Abhisit’s Democrat government is serious about addressing the human rights issues and or has a genuine desire for a democratic change in Burma, it can strive to act as a conduit between the Eastern engagement group and the Western sanction group to come up with a coordinated and effective international strategy.

 

Thailand, which currently holds ASEAN chairmanship, also has an advantage to make a difference in the military-ruled Burma. But one must not, however, expect a silver bullet from the new Thai government.

 

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).