Thailand's policy on Myanmar stinks
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Thailand's policy on Myanmar stinks


A protester holds an image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on Feb 1. (Photo: AFP)
A protester holds an image of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on Feb 1. (Photo: AFP)

The latest move to coddle and recognise Myanmar's junta government by caretaker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's outgoing regime does not add up. Sanctioned and supported by Gen Prayut, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai arranged an Asean-wide ministerial meeting in Pattaya on June 18 with Myanmar's junta-appointed Foreign Minister Than Swe with unusual haste. Shrouded in controversy and desperation, both the PM's and the FM's clichéd explanations just do not wash. It begs the question of whether there are vested interests involved, above and beyond Thailand's national interest, in the outgoing government's seeming acceptance of Myanmar's military regime that took power by force on Feb 1, 2021.

With full knowledge that he will soon have to vacate his office too because Gen Prayut's military-aligned United Thai Nation Party lost the May 14 election, Mr Don had zero mandate but still went ahead by sending out invitations on June 14, just four days before convening the high-level gathering. When he controversially sponsored similar meetings in the recent past, at least they transpired before a Thai poll. In addition, Mr Don and his adviser and special envoy on Myanmar, Pornpimol Kanchanalak, have gone out of their way to arrange a series of "track 1.5" think-tank conferences to include Myanmar. The clear aim has been criticised as lending legitimacy and recognition to the State Administration Council (SAC), Myanmar's junta government. The rationalisation is purportedly to maintain Thailand's national interest.

Both Gen Prayut and Mr Don spouted the usual list of bilateral imperatives between Thailand and Myanmar. These include the fact that Thailand shares a border of over 2,400 kilometres with Myanmar and therefore has to engage with its next-door neighbour on common issues from the trafficking of labour, illicit drugs and arms to criminal call centres that have lured people from across Southeast Asia and beyond to scam money out of others. At the same time, Thailand's corporate stakes of more than US$11 billion (386 billion baht) with 154 projects were circulated in the media, ranking third with 12.5% of overall foreign investment in Myanmar.

It was also reported that further United States and Western sanctions against the SAC -- the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank and Myanmar Investment and Commercial Bank in this case -- required the Thai government to act. Yet these justifications and excuses just do not make sense overall.

Indeed, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, with more than twice at stake than Thailand, whereas China ranks second. Yet the Singaporean government has taken the principled position of following Asean's Five-Point Consensus from April 2021, calling for the cessation of violence, an inclusive dialogue, humanitarian assistance, a special envoy and a delegation visit to find a way forward.

True, Thailand has critical bilateral issues with Myanmar in view of labour migration, drugs and arms trafficking, transnational crimes, and even pollution from agricultural burning. But these issues are as problematic as ever, even worsening. What Mr Don and Ms Pornpimol have been doing in favour of the SAC has yet to yield results for Thailand.

On the contrary, the pair, under Gen Prayut's watch, have affected Thailand's international standing, undermined Asean's central regional role and sabotaged Indonesia's position as the current Asean chair. Thailand's questionable policy has made enemies with the vast majority of Myanmar's population, who have risen up against the SAC, underpinned by a raging civil war in which the military is not winning and is unable to consolidate its grip on power. Without heavy war weapons, including armour and airstrikes, the Myanmar military may end up losing.

By riding roughshod over Asean and Indonesia as chair, Mr Don has impaired Asean's reputation in the international community. He has also further sowed divisions among Asean member states. Since Myanmar's coup, Asean has broadly split into two camps, pitting Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore on one side with a demand for the restoration of democratic rule versus the others. It comes as no surprise that the autocratic Asean members from Brunei and Cambodia to Laos and Vietnam are sympathetic to the SAC and silent on its atrocities against the Myanmar people. These Asean members have been participating in Mr Don's meetings, while the other four have opted out time and again.

The odd man out is Thailand under Gen Prayut's foreign policy with Myanmar's SAC. Unsurprisingly, the democratically elected Move Forward Party and its leader Pita Limjaroenrat have come out to oppose Mr Don's latest gambit, emphasising Asean centrality and the Five-Point Consensus. All international stakeholders should know that the Prayut-led government's position on Myanmar does not represent the collective view of the majority of Thai people.

To be sure, Thailand needs to engage with the SAC, but it needs to do so together with other parties, particularly other stakeholders, including the opposing National Unity Government, in the Myanmar civil war in the spirit of the Asean Five-Point Consensus. As a neighbour of Myanmar, Thailand should play a closely supportive role to the Asean chair to promote alignment among opposition groups and to nudge the SAC towards dialogue by using recognition and official engagement as leverage. The SAC has so far proved intransigent and unilateral. Further accommodation will only result in the SAC becoming even more emboldened and self-righteous. The disparate resistance coalition also needs to close ranks and demonstrate that they have the unity and wherewithal to govern and keep the country intact.

The foreign minister insisted that he has to act despite being an outgoing caretaker because Thailand's national interest "cannot wait" for the new government. What cannot wait is a matter of debate. As Mr Don and Ms Pornpimol are senior government officials, they are subject to questions of integrity and intent. As Ms Pornpimol is known as a career and convicted lobbyist in a US court of law, the public indeed has a right to ask and know whether private interests are at stake here. This is a matter that should be formally investigated by the incoming government with a democratic mandate.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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