The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Thailand as a Mediating Force
By SUNAI PHASUK Saturday, February 1, 2003

The Irrawaddy spoke to Sunai Phasuk of Forum-Asia, a Bangkok-based rights group, about new efforts by the Thai government to engage Burma.

Question: What do you think of Thai Prime Minster Thaksin’s recent proposal to act as a negotiator between the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] and ethnic groups?

Answer: This is the cornerstone of Thaksin’s Burma policy, but perhaps it is the most unrealistic part of his policy. His achievements—I guess we cannot call them achievements yet—but we see concrete moves in efforts to build up economic ties and efforts to create communication channels. But in terms of the role of Thailand in mediating the conflict between the SPDC and ethnic groups, Thailand hasn’t proved it has any credentials, apart from it’s geographical location.

Apart from that, Thailand has failed to build trust and confidence. And that is a very significant issue if Thailand is to act as a mediator, particularly for ethnic minorities and democracy groups. Since Thaksin came to power, he’s declared a harsh stance towards these groups. Thailand has made it clear under the Thaksin administration that Thailand would no longer allow ethnic groups and pro-democracy groups to be in Thailand, and that will weaken their position.

I don’t think ethnic groups and democracy groups will feel confident enough to let Thailand play a role as a mediator, because they won’t see this role as fair to them.

Q: What do you think is behind Thaksin’s proposal? Economics? Or is it to get rid of opium and narcotics trade?

A: In terms of narcotic reductions most of the focus hasn’t been placed on opium. This is not a major threat to Thailand and Thai people anymore. It is methamphetamines, or yaa baa, which is the major threat and we haven’t seen any concrete achievement in the agreement between Thaksin and the SPDC at all. Not much has been mentioned that from now on, the SPDC will try to convince the Wa and Kokang, and the emphasis will be on decreasing the trafficking of methamphetamines, to reveal their activities and even to stop their activities. In terms of drug eradication cooperation this is very clearly lip service.

Q: How can the Thaksin administration win over ethnic groups, then? How can Thailand convince them that they are sincere about prosperity and peace in the region?

A: I think it’s already too late for the Thaksin administration to win the hearts and minds of ethnic minorities and pro-democracy groups. Because the Thaksin administration has chosen to take part with the SPDC and resort to harsh crackdowns on ethnic minority groups and pro-democracy groups, so it’s impossible for me to see that things will change. Furthermore, Thaksin has personally played a role in attracting investment to Burma, which is clearly against the interests of the people of Burma. Even if there is any reconciliation in the future, Thai investment in Burma will continue to put the people of Burma through hardship.

Q: Some people say that Thaksin’s approach to Rangoon is very soft, do you agree?

A: Yes, I agree. Thailand should insist on a conditional relationship. As an investor, Thailand should be able to set up conditions that unless there are significant improvements, Thailand will not invest in Burma and there would not be support. So far cooperation between Thailand has been conditional, but the conditions have been set by the SPDC, not by Thailand. This is against any common sense in terms of bilateral relations.

Q: Do you think in terms of relations between Thailand and Burma that things are returning to normal? Thailand seems eager to patch up problems with Rangoon, what are your thoughts?

A: The signals are clear. The Thaksin administration is so eager to establish friendship with the SPDC at all costs. That reveals a weak position at the negotiation table and makes Thailand vulnerable to any pressure from the SPDC, and it is one-sided pressure.

Q: How can Thailand choose to play with Rangoon in terms of policy? How can Thailand improve relations so as to solve drug problems, illegal immigration and refugee problems?

A: Issues related to Burma should come down to the internal political situations in Burma, and Thailand must deal with that. So actually, in theory, the policy is very good because at least we have action when we hear that Thailand is willing to play a mediating role to solve conflict in Burma. But what we’ve seen until now is only lip service. So far, Thailand has failed to transform policy into action.

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