Thai-Burma Relations through the Thaksin Prism – The Irrawaddy

BANGKOK — After the crackdown on the two-month-long Redshirt protest in Bangkok, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra remains a controversial and polarizing figure in Thai politics. Listed by the Thai courts as a “terrorist” and still running from a 2008 corruption conviction, the former prime minister might be on the wrong side of the law, but he remains on the right side of his millions of supporters.

Adored by Redshirts for his pro-poor economic redistribution, he is seen by some as the man who changed Thai politics and tried to take power from the traditional elites. Opponents dismiss him as a populist in the style of Hugo Chavez, who bought votes with social spending and centralized power around himself, overriding Thailand’s 1997 Constitution and playing fast and loose with human rights. Others say he represented and personified a brash nouveau-riche elite who sought to undermine the old school networks at the top of Thailand’s political and economic tree.

Thaksin tried to have an impact on the world stage too, and still does, as he flits from Cambodia to Dubai to Montenegro and beyond. Despite dismissing the UN as “not my father” while in office, he and Redshirt leaders called for UN intervention during the recent anti-government rally. Launching his new book “Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy” on Wednesday, Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun said that Thaksin extended the market-oriented foreign policy of previous PM Gen Chatichai Choonhavan (1988-91), undermining the sway of the Democrat Party-oriented old school diplomatic elite, whom Thakisn dismissed as “dinosaurs.”

While describing many of Thaksin’s foreign policy initiatives as “bold,” Pavin added that these were often “hollow.” Pavin is a former Thai foreign service officer who served under Thaksin and is now a research fellow at Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies.

Thaksin launched a number of new foreign policy initiatives, famously telling foreign diplomats to act as “CEO Ambassadors,” and pulling Thailand closer to China while dismissing the US “War on Terror.” Pavin says, however, that many of Thaksin’s foreign relations gambits were “for personal gain as much as national self-interest,” and noted that Thaksin changed his tune on terrorism after 2004 at the onset of the Malay Muslim rebellion in Thailand’s deep south. Pavin summed up Thaksin’s foreign relations as an extension of his domestic policy, seeking to piggyback on globalization “to find and open new markets for his grassroots supporters,” and directing ambassadors to focus on trade and investment over democratization and human rights.

Thaksin had a major impact on Thai-Burmese relations upon assuming office, seeing engagement with the junta as a commercial venture first and foremost. Surakiart Sathirathai served as foreign minister during the Thaksin administrations. Speaking at a seminar on Thai foreign relations in February, he said that during the Thai Rak Thai administration, the government “worked to bring Myanmar in from the cold” with Thai diplomacy a key factor in cajoling the Burmese junta into a 2003 announcement that it would draft a new constitution as part of the so-called “seven-step road map to democracy.” However, Burma’s 2008 Constitution has been widely-dismissed as a sham, designed to put a civilian facade on continued military rule.

Thaksin’s somewhat cavalier, faux-entrepreneurial style of diplomacy as seen elsewhere, came across as little more than unprincipled opportunism in Burma. Thailand fostered new trade and investment links with the junta during Thaksin’s rule, with Thaksin opponents saying that these, like many of his foreign policy and trade initiatives, were as much about personal or business interests as anything else. Thaksin’s Burma visits led to Shin Corp, the telecoms company once owned by Thaksin’s family, signing a deal with Bagan Cybertech, an Internet service provider run by the son of former prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt. That deal was a factor in the February decision by the Thai courts to seize US $1.4 billion of Thaksin’s assets. Khin Nyunt was prime minister of Burma in 2003-04, before being ousted in a purge led by ruling strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Khin Nyunt was seen as close to Thaksin and slightly more open to dealing with the West than others in the junta.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy, Zoya Phan, the International Coordinator of the Burma Campaign UK, summed up Thaksin’s role in Burma as “in favor of supporting military dictatorship for economic reasons rather than promoting human rights and democracy.”

Sharing a 2,400-km border, Thailand and Burma have had a close if somewhat ambivalent relationship down through the years. The Burmese sacking of the old Siamese capital of Ayutthaya in 1767 is remembered as a tragedy in Bangkok, but is celebrated by the Burmese—or at least by the ruling junta in Naypyidaw, which is fond of building statues and monuments to Burmese military icons from the past, cementing its own self-image as the historically rooted guardian of the Burmese nation.

Thai political and military elites might view all this with some bemusement, keen to recall that more recently, Thailand emerged the sole Southeast Asian country to resist Western imperialism as the British and French encroached on either side. In the 1970s, when Burma’s military rulers took to socialism, Thailand’s US-aligned governments looked on with alarm during the Cold War, fears exacerbated as Communist Vietnam invaded Cambodia, while Laos veered to the left as well.

The junta for its part has at times resented what it perceives as de facto Thai support for ethnic minority insurgents in Burma, though this analysis must be tempered by Thailand’s haphazard policy of clamping down on cross-border drug trafficking, which benefits some of the ethnic militias financially. Border skirmishes and cross-border attacks by both country’s armies took place in 2002.

However, Thaksin’s attempts to replace Indonesia’s Suharto and Malaysia’s Mahathir as a de facto regional figurehead for Southeast Asia might have backfired. The junta may have taken his references to the ancient “Suvarnabhumi” region as code for Thai political dominance of mainland Southeast Asia, or at least reinforcing views elsewhere that Thailand sees itself as superior to its less well-off neighbors.

Puanthong Pawakapan, an international relations teacher at Chulalongkorn University, said that Thailand does not really have a coherent Burma policy. She said that while the current Abhisit government requests the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of Burma’s political prisoners, and seeks free and fair elections in 2010, it tempers these requests with claims that “engagement” with the junta is the only way forward, stating that “Thailand will not interfere in domestic policy.”

Business and trade links are growing, and likely motivate the Democrat-led government’s unwillingness to take a tougher line with the junta, despite tough talk during the party’s time in opposition when it lambasted Thaksin for his close ties to the Burmese generals.

According to the Asian Development Bank, Burmese exports to Thailand have more than tripled since 2003 to $3.3 billion in 2008 due mainly to natural gas. Thailand buys about 30 percent of its gas from Burma. About two-thirds of Thailand’s electricity comes from domestic gas supplies and those from its neighbor. Thailand is thought to be the top investor in Burma, according to some analyses. According to the junta, Thailand ranked first among country investors into Burma in the 10 years up to 2008, ahead of Britain and Singapore who apparently take second and third place.

Wassana Mututanond, who is an investment adviser at Thailand’s Board of Investment, said Thailand had invested $7.41 billion in Burma between 1988 and 2009, making it the top investor in Burma in terms of investment value, according to a report on the Thai News Agency website on Friday. A new Thai-Myanmar Business Council was recently established to embellish growing commercial ties.

Might all this be somewhat shortsighted on the part of the Bangkok government? The usual line by successive Thai Governments—both Thaksin-linked and Democrat—is that what happens in Burma is a domestic Burmese issue. However, the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Causus, a network of Asean parliamentarians who advocate democratic reform in Burma, has published papers outlining the regional security threat posed by Burma, and its divisive internal politics.

That was before last week’s revelations carried by the exiled Burmese news agency Democratic Voice of Burma and based on the testimony of a Tatmadaw defector, that the junta is seeking nuclear weapons and is collaborating with North Korea on this and on conventional weaponry development.

Some members of the ruling Democrat Party take the junta threat more seriously. Speaking before Christmas, Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said that Burmese military spending could fuel a regional arms race. He added that the lack of national reconciliation in Burma would mean continued violence and instability, especially in the borderlands where ethnic minorities live. This would lead to more displacement, and, inevitably, Thailand would receive additional refugees.

This view is shared by many refugees who have fled Burma. Zoya Phan is a Karen who fled across the border to Thailand during the 1990’s after her home was attacked by the junta army. Her experiences are documented in Undaunted, the recently-released US edition of her biography. She told The Irrawaddy “Over the past 25 years Thailand has earned the respect of the international community by giving shelter to refugees fleeing abuses in Burma. I was one of them fleeing from my home and getting sanctuary in refugee camp in Thailand.“

But rather than proceed as if the nature of military rule in Burma has no impact beyond Burmese borders, Zoya Phan suggested that if Thailand “wants to see cessation of refugees and migrant workers coming from Burma, what it needs to do is to tackle the root causes of the problem, which is a dictatorship that is responsible for human rights violations against civilians.”

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