Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s official visit to Myanmar on Oct. 9 and 10 was his first introductory tour since he assumed the Thai premiership last month.
Traditionally Thai leaders prioritize a visit to neighbor members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to boost bilateral ties. In Prayuth’s case, the objective was more complicated than simply strengthening their relationship.
Having faced soft sanctions from some Western governments, Prayuth’s choice of Myanmar for his first foreign trip seemed rationale. Thai-Myanmar relations have often been erratic, shaped by insecurities along their common borders such as ethnic conflicts, the flow of Burmese refugees and the drug trade. Prayuth sought close cooperation from Myanmar to overcome some of these lingering problems.
At a deeper level, however, Prayuth hoped to exploit his trip to Myanmar by adding a layer of legitimacy to his regime. Myanmar has in recent years been in the spotlight for its drastic political transformation. After long years of military rule, Myanmar in 2010 held its first general elections in 20 years.
Shortly afterward, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading opposition figure (National League for Democracy) was released from her lengthy house arrest. Suddenly a sense of optimism could be felt in Myanmar. U.S. President Barack Obama even abandoned his hostile policy, as he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar in November 2012.
Prayuth might have hoped his tour in Myanmar would spin some positive press as Thailand undergoes a similar political transformation — from corruption politics to responsible democracy. After all, the two countries now share political similarities. For example, while 25 percent of Myanmar’s parliamentarians consist of military men, the Thai parliament can count more than half of its members as from the army.
Myanmar responded favorably to the Thai visit and was enthusiastic in doing its part to provide legitimacy to Thai military rule. Earlier in July, President Thein Sein had sent Supreme Commander Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to Bangkok to pay a courtesy call on the Thai junta. Shockingly he extolled the Thai coup makers with remarks like “It was right to seize power to protect national security and people’s safety.”
Min Aung Hlaing compared the turmoil in Thailand with his country’s traumatic experience in August 1988, when the Myanmar military launched a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy activists on the streets of Yangon.
However, Prayuth’s much-publicized visit to Myanmar could plainly backfire, because the international community has begun to cast doubt on the seriousness of the political reforms undertaken by the Thein Sein regime.
On the surface, developments toward a more open society in Myanmar can be detected, such as the widespread use of the Internet, guarantees of press freedom and open political activities by opposition parties. But in another reality, democratization in Myanmar has stagnated. The government remains reluctant to support amending the constitution to reduce the military’s presence in politics. More importantly, it has insisted on prohibiting Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president in 2015 on the grounds she had a foreign spouse and has foreign children.
Myanmar has come under mounting criticism over the entrenchment of the military’s position in politics, now protected under a legitimate parliamentary system. In addition, the government has continued to alienate the Rohingya — Muslims living in Rakhine state — who have been drawn into violent conflicts with local Buddhists.
The Rohingya have never been viewed as an ethnic group in Myanmar, but rather as stateless refugees without even the entitlement to basic humanitarian support from the government.
Ironically the aspirations of Thai leaders to hitch a ride on Myanmar’s supposed political achievements seem to underscore the fact that the two regimes are merely treating reforms as cover while working to ensure that their political influence sticks around.
Prayuth so far has constructed the necessary infrastructure for the military’s position in politics by overseeing the writing of an interim constitution that weakens future civilian governments, forming the military-dominated National Legislative Council and appointing people from his circle to serve in the Cabinet.
On top of this, the basic human rights of the people have been stripped. Protests are illegal. Criticism of the junta by media and academics is forbidden.
Thus Prayuth’s goodwill visit to Myanmar might not benefit his regime politically. It does raise the question of whether Thailand will become like Myanmar with the army embedded in politics during the course of reforms, and whether the alliance between the two countries will jeopardize the pace of regional democratization.
Cozy ties between the Thai junta and the Myanmar government, based on shared political interests, should worry ASEAN as much as the West. Together the two are emerging as a challenge to the region, as this quasi-democracy club loosely sets itself up to conceal the political realities in both countries.
Next year, ASEAN plans to complete its community building process. Unfortunately, of its three pillars, the one calling for a political and security community is unlikely to materialize.
Regional conflicts have not been resolved. These range from disputes over atmospheric haze among Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to the fragile relationship between Thailand and Cambodia over several border issues.
A Thai-Myanmar alliance would undoubtedly pose an obstacle to ASEAN community building. Since the May 2014 coup in Thailand, ASEAN has failed to release any statement condemning the Thai Army’s unlawful seizure of power.
The rule of “noninterference” has become a key impediment in making meaningful statements about grave political situations in ASEAN member countries. ASEAN’s failure will not help to legitimize Prayuth’s visit to Myanmar.
Back in Bangkok, Prayuth’s propaganda machine called his visit to Myanmar a success. The comfortable relations between Thailand and Myanmar are being promoted at the expense of Thai ties with the West.
For now, the Thai junta might be able to diversify the country’s foreign policy choices by not having to rely solely on the West’s support as it did before the coup. But being an ally of Myanmar while the latter government is under criticism for its dubious political reforms will only further isolate Thailand from the international community.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.