US cables show taboos in Thailand-Burma relations – The Irrawaddy


BANGKOK—More recently-released US diplomatic cables have shed light on Thailand’s relationship with Burma as perceived by American officials at their embassy in Bangkok.

The documents suggest that despite rhetorical differences, there was continuity of policy both before the 2006-2008 crisis in Thailand—when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup—and afterwards when Democrat leader Abhisit Vejajjiva took over power.

The cables provide accounts of various US officials, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, discussing various aspects of Thailand’s foreign policy with Thai lawmakers such as Thaksin Shinawatra and outgoing Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya.

A cable dated Aug. 18, 2008, said, “for most of the Thaksin administration, [the United States] have been at odds over our respective approaches to Burma—essentially agreeing to disagree.”

When Rumsfeld raised the issue of Burma with Thaksin, the former PM said, “Thailand’s goals vis-a-vis Burma are the same as the US, but the reality of Thailand’s border with Burma precludes the [Thai government] from pursuing the same strategy,” according to the cable, which is a “partial extract” as the full text has not been released.

In general, US officials sought to persuade their Thai counterparts that “constructive engagement” with the Burmese regime, then known as the State Peace and Development Council, was unlikely to work. Thai officials appeared to tacitly acknowledge this with then-Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat saying that the Burmese leadership “stiffened” at the mere mention of democracy, according to a US Embassy cable dated Oct. 27, 2008.

But it seems democracy was not the only taboo subject when Thailand’s lawmakers met Burma’s rulers. Similarly, when Thaksin met with Burma’s military dictator Sen-Gen Than Shwe in 2006, he attempted to bring up the topic of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, according to an account given to Ambassador Ralph Boyce by Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathiai. “However, as soon as he did Than Shwe ‘cut him off’ with the usual litany of complaints, i.e. [Suu Kyi] is uncooperative, causes trouble whenever she is released, etc,” said the cable.

Two years after Thaksin’s rebuff by Than Shwe, Sompong said that Thailand would “look for indirect ways of promoting democratic development,” such as offering Thai assistance/training on local administration elections, since pressing anything labeled “democracy” on the Burmese would be rejected. This pessimistic analysis came just months after Burma voted on a new constitution in a referendum slammed-internationally as inherently flawed.

The junta sought to portray the constitution as a step toward democratization and elections, which were in turn held on Nov. 7, 2010, and were likewise dismissed as a sham—an assessment partly-based on the constitutional requirement that the military retain a behinds-the-scene veto on political change in Burma.

Whilst “agreeing to differ” on Burma policy in general, the US was angered by Thaksin’s sudden, unannounced trip to Burma on Aug. 2, 2006, which apparently came about after the Thai PM “got word” from Than Shwe on July 31 that a visit would be possible. Surakiart insisted the visit had nothing to do with Thaksin’s alleged business links in Burma, but was about convincing the Burmese junta to be more open in its dealings with the outside world.

Just over a month before he ousted Thaksin in a military coup, one member of Thaksin’s hastily assembled delegation, Thai Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, met with then-General Thura Shwe Mann, now speaker of Burma’s nominally-civilian Parliament, while Thaksin sat with Than Shwe.

Agreeing with American concerns about the trip, Surukiart noted that the then-opposition in Thailand would “have a field day with this” and, in general, Thaksin’s relations with the Burmese rulers drew fire from the Democrat Party while Thai Rak Thai and its successor parties were in government.

On Dec 26, 2008, soon after Abhisit Vejajjiva took office and replaced the Thaksin-backed People’s Power Party (PPP)-led coalition in what critics slammed as a judicial coup, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya met with the US Ambassador.

Responding to questions about the new government’s Burma policy, Kasit said, “PM Abhisit had made it clear to the cabinet that vested interests would not drive Thailand’s external relationships,” according to the confidential cable.

In an apparent reference to Thaksin’s attempts to forge closer economic ties with the junta, Kasit said, “the vested interests that drove Thailand’s past relationship with Burma (including the activities of companies and state agencies such as the [Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand] and [Petroleum Authority of Thailand] would no longer drive policy.”

Thailand’s investment in Burma increased under the Democrat-led coalition, which was beaten once more by a Thaksin-backed party in Thailand’s July 3 election. The flagship Thai project is the US$8 billion Dawei/Tavoy port development, which was first mooted under Thailand’s Thaksin-linked PPP governments, but was eventually signed on Nov. 2, 2010, five days before Burma’s election.

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