Between Democracy and Dictatorship
covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, December 09, 2021


Between Democracy and Dictatorship



Thailand’s policies toward Burma will change if the planned election installs a new regime with a seemingly democratic face

When the Burmese government allowed foreign envoys to meet with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May 2009, she reportedly whispered into the ear of the Thai envoy, “I would like to thank Thailand for its support for my fight for democracy in Burma. I will visit Thailand one day to show my appreciation.”

The return of the Democrat Party to power in Thailand should have lifted Suu Kyi’s spirits because it was under Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai’s Democrat Party-led government (1997-2001) that relations between Thailand and Burma’s became strained as Thailand expressed the right to voice concerns over the political situation in Burma under its “flexible engagement policy.”

While it is hard to imagine Burma becoming a democratic entity, whatever the nature of Burma’s  post-election government, it is likely to get along well with other nominally democratic regimes in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and play an important role in reshaping the region’s political landscape. Many observers anticipate changes in Thai-Burmese relations as a result of Burma’s impending political transition.

Successive Thai governments have exploited unstable political conditions and the existence of a military regime in Burma to legitimize their foreign policy interests. Thai interests often seemed to lie in keeping Burma undemocratic, while expanding trade ties with the country. Thailand is now the largest importer of Burmese products (Burma’s natural gas accounts for approximately 30 percent of Thailand’s electricity generation) and second largest exporter to Burma after China.

Under the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-06), relations between Thailand and Burma were relatively smooth and non-confrontational. Thaksin exploited relations with the Burmese regime, in one instance pushing Thailand’s Import Export Bank to  increase a soft loan to Burma to 4 billion baht (US $122 million) to purchase telecommunications equipment from Shin Satellite, his family business. For this he was found guilty of abuse of power by the Thai supreme court on Feb. 26.

The Democrat Party has also found that the endurance of the military regime in Burma suits its interests, providing a rationale for a foreign policy based on the theme of “democratic Thailand” versus “despotic Burma.” Like Thailand’s military regimes in the past, the Democrat Party-led government under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva continues to raise the specter of Burma as a national threat, allowing the government to manipulate its policy vis-à-vis the ethnic minorities along the border and conveniently blame the Burmese regime for the upsurge of narcotic consumption in Thailand.

In the past, Thailand often claimed that Burma’s military regime was the main obstacle to normalizing relations. Now that some form of democracy, no matter how hollow, appears to be coming to Burma, Thai leaders may no longer have excuses to avoid serious discussion regarding contentious issues.

From a regional perspective, a new democratic Burma might vindicate Asean’s slow approach to bringing Burma into the mainstream through “constructive engagement.” Burma may now complete the final step of its “road map to democracy,” but Asean will still have to ensure that democratization in Burma is sustained in the post-election period.

“As a friend and a member of the Asean family, Thailand would like to see national reconciliation and peace in Burma,” said Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya recently. “Holding free and fair elections will allow the country to bring back peace and reconciliation.”

However, such political developments in Burma might not entirely suit the Thai government’s interests, which may partly explain why Bangkok’s governor, Sukhumband Paribatra, a former foreign minister and key Democrat Party member, said in December that Burma’s large standing army was a “major source of regional instability.”

Thai leaders are anxious to see how post-election changes in Burma will affect ties with Thailand and impinge on the legitimacy of their policy as they interact with a new regime in Naypyidaw.


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