Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Abhisit Needs to Set a New Course on Burma


(Irrawaddy News) -Here’s some good news: Thailand’s new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, says he shares the West’s desire for change in Burma.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Kingdom is about to impose sanctions on its recalcitrant neighbor. Because of its culture and geographic proximity to Burma, Thailand could not embrace such an approach, he explained.

The young prime minister was disappointingly short on details about what his country could do to bring about change in Burma, but at least he made a clear break from the policies of former PM Samak Sundaravej, who visited Burma a year ago and returned full of fulsome praise for his hosts.

Samak, who was widely regarded as a proxy for ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra, infamously came to the defense of Burma’s brutal generals, describing them as pious Buddhists who pray and meditate every morning.

More importantly, Samak was intent on restoring Thaksin’s policy of highly personalized, business-based relations with Burma. Under Thaksin, Thailand’s Burma policy was driven by purely commercial considerations. The lack of transparency that characterized some of his deals with the Burmese junta was widely criticized.

Most Burmese now hope that Abhisit will be able to restore transparency and accountability to Thailand’s dealings with its troubled neighbor. But even if he succeeds in staying in office long enough to undo some of the more damaging aspects of Thaksin’s legacy, he will have his work cut out for him setting relations with Burma on a straighter course.

Almost from the moment the Burmese regime seized power in a bloody coup in 1988, Thailand has been deeply conflicted over how to respond to its neighbor’s problems.

In the immediate aftermath of the army’s crackdown on protests, Burma’s nascent pro-democracy movement enjoyed strong popular support in Thailand, which soon became an important base for thousands of anti-junta dissidents; even now, hundreds of exiles remain in the country, to the perennial irritation of Burma’s rulers.

At the same time, however, many in Thailand’s ruling class saw the bloodshed as an act of desperation by a military clique despised by the majority of Burmese and with few friends abroad. The government of late PM Chatchai Choonhavan wasted no time in exploiting this rare opportunity to win access to Burma’s resources in exchange for Thailand’s economic and diplomatic support of the regime.

For most of the past 20 years, Bangkok has pursued a policy of “constructive engagement” with Burma. Only during the two terms of former PM Chuan Leekpai has Thailand’s Burma policy been guided by principles other than economic self-interest.

In 1993, the Chuan government allowed Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit Thailand to lobby for the release of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and to highlight the need for democracy in Burma. The regime in Rangoon was furious and the relationship was strained.

During his second term, from 1997 to 2001, Chuan took an even tougher stance toward the generals in Burma. He declined to pay an official visit to Burma and he put Thailand’s defense in the hands of then-Army Chief Gen Surayud Chulanont and then-Third Army Commander Lt-Gen Watanachai Chaimuenwong—two hawks who looked askance at their neighbors to the west. Gen Surayud was also known to be sympathetic to Burma’s ethnic minorities.

As a result, troops from both sides massed along the border, leading to serious skirmishes and repeated border closures. Relations were then at their lowest ebb.

All this changed when Thaksin became the prime minister in 2001. He quickly restored a business-based approach to relations with Rangoon. But after Thaksin was deposed by a military coup in October 2006, relations with Burma were put on the back burner.

Surayud returned to a position of influence, this time as Thailand’s interim leader, and Bangkok kept its distance from Burma.

Surayud condemned the regime’s bloody crackdown on Buddhist monks and activists in September 2007 and called for a concerted international process to deal with Burma, modeled on the six-party talks which successfully persuaded North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

So what can we expect from new Thai government?

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya has indicated that the new Democrat-led coalition government in Bangkok would depart from Thaksin’s business-oriented Burma policies, saying that Thailand would now run “an ethical foreign policy.”

“We shall have no [personal] business deals with the [Burmese] junta; we shall observe human rights and environmental concerns; we shall treat Burmese as we do Thais,” he said at an academic conference on December 19.

Burmese who listened to Kasit via shortwave radio stations hailed the remark. But we all know that Thailand cannot afford to allow ties with Burma to sour too much.

In reality, Thailand is Burma’s leading investor and trading partner. Thai state-owned energy firms are the largest buyers of natural gas from Burma and Thailand has won a concession to energy from the 7,110-megawatt Tasang dam on the Salween River in Burma’s Shan State. The Thai-financed project has seen no progress to date.

Under Samak, the two sides also discussed a plan to build a deep-sea port in Tavoy in Burma’s southeast, for which the regime leaders reportedly asked assistance from Thailand.

Thailand and Burma can do more business in the future, but Abhisit’s government must also take the lead in pushing for political change in Burma.

There are several ways it can do this.

As a chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Bangkok can help to formulate a comprehensive policy to bring about positive change in Burma. If Thailand, in coordination with Asean, begins to make a move, China and India, the regime’s two major allies, will listen.

Abhisit has already indicated that his Burma policy is likely to involve a more proactive stance on human rights issues in the military-ruled country. In an interview with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network, Abhisit said that he would try to convince fellow members of the Asean of the importance of human rights to the international community.

Unless Asean’s efforts to enshrine human rights are credible in the eyes of the international community, “the grouping will not be able to achieve its objectives,” he said.

Abhisit, an Oxford-educated economist, can also help Asean and the West to find some common ground in their approach to Burma.

Thailand could, for instance, take a more active role in humanitarian relief efforts in Burma’s cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta, which have brought together a wide range of international participants focused on addressing some of Burma’s immediate needs.

Perhaps with this in mind, the Thai foreign minister has offered to help Burma coordinate fundraising for the reconstruction of temples damaged by Cyclone Nargis.

But Abhisit must also take care to ensure that Thailand’s efforts to rebuild Burma do not end with its temples. He should remind his Asean counterparts that Burma’s political system also needs to be fixed, and that the sooner that can be achieved, the better it will be for the whole region.

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