Keep­ing friends close, Thai­land closer

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - NI­CHOLAS FAR­RELLY ni­cholas.far­relly@anu.edu.au

IT says some­thing pro­found about the re­gion that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s first in­ter­na­tional trips as state coun­sel­lor and for­eign min­is­ter have re­quired photo ops with South­east Asian dic­ta­tors. First up, she went to Vi­en­tiane for meet­ings hosted by the Lao com­mu­nist party. Now she has re­cently re­turned from Thai­land, where that coun­try’s mil­i­tary rulers of­fered their gilded hos­pi­tal­ity to South­east Asia’s best-recog­nised democ­racy ac­tivist.

While it is tempt­ing to dwell on the irony, the hard po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can­not avoid a close work­ing re­la­tion­ship with her Thai coun­ter­parts.

In ev­ery gen­er­a­tion, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Thai­land and Myan­mar is one of the re­gion’s most no­table. In the old days it was or­di­nar­ily shaped by war, con­quest and trauma.

Thai school­child­ren are not al­lowed to for­get the sack­ing of their cap­i­tal, Ayut­thaya, in 1767 by the Kon­baung dy­nasty’s King Hs­in­byushin. We still hear ref­er­ence to the fallen cap­i­tal when­ever a Myan­mar speaker refers to their “Yo­daya” neigh­bours.

Even in more re­cent times, there have been flare-ups along the bor­der, with push­ing and shov­ing be­tween se­cu­rity and mil­i­tary forces. Both sides de­vote a sig­nif­i­cant frac­tion of de­fence spend­ing to their con­tested bor­der­lands and to keep­ing an eye on each other.

For­tu­nately, the two coun­tries have rarely come to se­ri­ous blows. In­deed, the joint man­age­ment of the bor­der­lands has set­tled into a com­fort­able pat­tern. Thai se­cu­rity of­fi­cials know their Myan­mar col­leagues well and have built up a level of con­fi­dence that tends to help re­solve sit­u­a­tions as they arise.

Most of the clashes along the bor­der in the past 10 years trace their ori­gins to the nox­ious mix of crim­i­nal, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties that can grow in lightly gov­erned spa­ces.

In rhetoric, Thai­land re­sents the huge flows of nar­cotics that cross the bor­der from Myan­mar, but it seems un­able or un­will­ing to fix what is a per­sis­tent so­cial prob­lem. It is un­clear whether the two coun­tries will ever share the where­withal to co­op­er­a­tively man­age such a fiendish pol­icy co­nun­drum.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit last month to Bangkok il­lus­trates the other ma­jor is­sues in the re­la­tion­ship.

At the top of the list are the mil­lions of Myan­mar mi­grant work­ers on the Thai side of the bor­der. For the past two gen­er­a­tions, they have done the de­mand­ing, de­mean­ing or dan­ger­ous jobs that Thais no longer want to do. Too of­ten, they have been paid pal­try sums, com­monly well be­low the man­dated min­i­mum wage.

Myan­mar work­ers are also sadly the vic­tims of much else that ails Thai so­ci­ety. Can the state coun­sel­lor and her team put an end to the ex­ploita­tion? That would be a win for hu­man­i­tar­ian val­ues and for Myan­mar’s new for­eign pol­icy.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s suc­cess will prob­a­bly be lim­ited, though, by the links be­tween con­strained do­mes­tic and re­gional pol­i­tics. The bot­tom line is that rel­a­tively sta­ble, in­ter­gen­er­a­tional elites rule both Thai­land and Myan­mar. They have proved ef­fec­tive at stomp­ing out al­ter­na­tive claims to power.

In Myan­mar, we still have the army in con­sti­tu­tional pole po­si­tion, now sup­ported by the aura of Gen­eral Aung San’s un­ri­valed lin­eage.

On the Thai side, the rul­ing mil­i­tary clique claims a man­date for its au­thor­i­tar­ian grip in de­fence of the royal fam­ily and its nine gen­er­a­tions of kingly rule. Bangkok’s stop-start ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with democ­racy has ended for now.

In any toe-to-toe com­par­i­son, that means to­day’s Myan­mar has the more open and par­tic­i­pa­tory pol­i­tics. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will have pon­dered this cu­ri­ous con­tra­dic­tion.

How­ever, such is the dif­fi­culty of Thai­land’s in­ter­nal pol­i­tics, and so high are anx­i­eties about the pre­car­i­ous royal suc­ces­sion, that Myan­mar ac­tu­ally needs to be on guard for po­ten­tial crises across the bor­der.

Th­ese con­di­tions present chal­lenges for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her for­eign pol­icy team. They un­der­stand the cru­cial role that Thai­land plays as a se­cu­rity part­ner for the United States in South­east Asia. In the past, State Peace and De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil strate­gists no doubt had ques­tions about whether the US had Thai­land-based as­sets to pre­pare for a show­down with Myan­mar.

Thank­fully, it never came to that. Now the high-tempo re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Myan­mar’s global rep­u­ta­tion and its on­go­ing po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion will change the re­la­tion­ship with Thai­land for good.

With eco­nomic growth rates of around 8 per­cent, record num­bers of for­eign visi­tors and a boom in na­tional con­fi­dence, Myan­mar is an at­trac­tive place for ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing Thais. When my Thai friends visit Yangon, Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda in Mon State or Keng Tung in Shan State, they revel in the ex­cite­ment of shared tra­di­tions and fa­mil­iar cul­tural vibes.

At the pop­u­lar level there is now a chance for cre­at­ing un­prece­dented good­will and in­ter­ac­tion. Any savvy moves in that di­rec­tion could also help to make South­east Asia a more peace­ful and pros­per­ous re­gion for the gen­er­a­tions to come.

Now the high-tempo re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Myan­mar’s global rep­u­ta­tion and its on­go­ing po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion will change the re­la­tion­ship with Thai­land for good.

Ni­cholas Far­relly is a Fel­low in the Bell School of Asia Pa­cific Af­fairs at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity and co­founder of New Man­dala, a web­site that spe­cialises in Thai and Myan­mar pol­i­tics. His col­umn ap­pears each Mon­day.

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