The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

"Thais are very angry with the Burmese, mainly because of drugs."

An interview with Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, head of Thailand’s Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. Interview by John S. Moncrief Question: What is your evaluation of the new government’s handling of relations with Burma? Answer: It’s too early to tell, but there is a genuine attempt by the Foreign Minister to use a carrot and stick tactic. The carrot being that Burma [has] so much to gain if they are decent to us. Decent means that they signed with us about four agreements—bilateral or multilateral agreements—that I can think of to suppress drug production, but let’s see some curbing from their side. And what they stand to gain is that we will start payment on the gas. There is a lot of income to be made from selling Yadana pipeline gas. Q: Initially, Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai outlined a foreign policy focused on economic engagement, but the government seems to have backed off on this to some extent. Has the idea of engaging Burma economically been abandoned? A: At the beginning, [the government] seemed more interested in the question of business. For instance, we posed questions to the Deputy Prime Minister, who’s also in charge of defense, Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudt. He proceeded to talk about mega projects. He gave detailed examples of deep-sea ports in the southern part of Burma, and lignite mining and electricity, before he started to answer security questions. But now, with the exposure of the linkages between the drugs of the minority people, particularly the Yunnanese Chinese and the Wa, and the Burmese military, [Prime Minister] Thaksin [Shinawatra] has decided that this information should be made public ... Now that suggests that Thaksin agrees with the army’s approach to the issue of relations between Thailand and Burma; but then, he’s erratic and he could shift again like he’s shifted on many other things. Q: PM Thaksin has declared a war on drugs. How can a war on drugs succeed unless it addresses the linkages between the drug lords and the SPDC? A: I think by exposing the information "by accident". But it’s not something that you can come out and say, because if you spoke about [the SPDC-drug connection] publicly, the Burmese would never talk to you. The government had no choice [but to expose the connection] in a way, even though this has created problems for them. But [Thaksin] has no choice but to keep on talking, negotiating with Burma. Q: Unlike many Thai military officials, Third Army Commander Lt-Gen Wattanachai Chaimuanwong has been quite aggressive with the Burmese. What kind of support does he have to take such a hard line? A: He has the support of most Thais who are affected by drugs. Thais are very angry with the Burmese, mainly because of drugs. Admittedly, though, at times he uses very strong words that raise eyebrows in Bangkok, particularly when the new government has boasted consistently that it has very good personal ties with the Burmese leaders. He is trying to be the antithesis of this as much as possible. Q: In the previous administration under Chuan Leekpai, the government had a more coordinated approach to Burma, as the Democrats controlled both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense. But now, these ministries are divided between different parties. Does the current government have the capacity to implement a unified policy, or will it be divided among competing institutions? A: The difference between Gen Chavalit’s [former] government and Banharn’s [former] government and Chuan’s second government is the fact that governments prior to Chuan’s relied mostly on the military to deal with the Burmese. Chuan’s government relied more on the foreign ministry than the military … [Now] we’re back to a similar situation as we were in before. But the use of FM Surakiart to probe Burma is the first scouting attempt. We might see the increasing use of Gen Chavalit if Surakiart doesn’t succeed, but I don’t think this would be to the satisfaction of the Thai people [unless there were a] drastic reduction in amphetamine production. I don’t think that will happen tomorrow or the day after or any time in the short term. Now the PM will visit Burma and drugs will be the main issue. But the Burmese can wait. They know that Thaksin is in a precarious situation. They know he’s being investigated by the constitutional court. Q: What do you think of Asean’s policy towards Burma? A: Asean can no longer function like this [and remain] an entity that we can call an international organization with some clout, when two members are confronting each other at the border practically on a yearly basis. So Asean has to take a position on this. I think that if Burma does not cease its excessive violence internally and stop causing trouble for neighboring countries with its export of drugs, it should be expelled from Asean. Q: Do you think Asean has the political will to do this? A: Obviously not, but this is my opinion. How can we function with a country like this as a member? When Burma was admitted to Asean, Malaysia and Singapore came out to defend Burma on the non-interference principle, as if it were some sort of religion. In my opinion this is quite hypocritical … When there is haze coming from the slash and burn cultivation in Sumatra and it hits Malaysia, they are quite critical of Indonesia. And is there any talk about interfering in the internal policy of Indonesia, when Indonesia has huge problems with ethnic and communal conflicts that lead to bloodshed and refugees flooding into Malaysia? Malaysia has mentioned this to Indonesia, but on the question of Burma, Malaysia takes a different position. This should be changed so that the problems between Thailand and Burma can be discussed in Asean with Asean approval. [Asean leaders need to] open their ears and eyes to the function of the organization as a whole. Q: What is the role of the Senate Committee for Foreign Affairs in policy formation towards Burma? A: I don’t think that we can in fact have much influence in terms of government policy towards Burma except when we are critical of them. The public can listen and we try to represent the people’s feelings and interests as much as possible on an issue by issue basis … But we are quite new at the job. I’m quite new at my job and still trying to define my own role. Q: What impact has the presence of US military advisors in the newly created drug suppression Task Force 399 had on Thai-Burma bilateral relations? A: I think Thailand needs the support, for one thing. We need to turn a military force that is basically trained for conventional warfare and counter-insurgency into a drug suppression force … But obviously the repercussions will be that the Burmese might use it as a diplomatic excuse to blast Thailand further. But they haven’t so far. Q: Insurgent armies that once provided buffer zones between Thailand and Burma have been severely weakened over the past ten years. What effect has this had on Thai national security and bilateral relations with Burma? A: That’s why we have gotten into a lot of clashes with the Burmese. I can’t remember when we were confronting Burmese on the border without factions of Karen, Kachin and even the Karenni. These groups have disintegrated, either escaping to Thailand as cheap labor or working as dirt farmers on the other side of the border. The Burmese are able to set up posts right in front of and opposite Thai positions. When clashes still occur sporadically along the border with these minorities, it’s inevitable that Thailand will come into confrontation with the Burmese. But Thais would never again … allow Burmese troops onto Thai soil. This has been strictly followed because of consistent reports on the linkages between Kokang drug-producing groups and the Burmese junta. The military in Burma will have second thoughts [before entering Thai territory again].

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