Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Constructive Non-interference?

The Irrawaddy

Since the Burmese regime arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and placed her under arrest in Insein Prison last month, Burma’s neighbors have been relatively vocal and have expressed their “concern.”

“The changes in Myanmar [Burma] are very much needed,” said Thailand’s outspoken Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya. “It not only is a necessity for the security of Myanmar, but also for all the neighboring countries including Bangladesh and Thailand.”

Burma’s leaders were clearly offended to be put down with such remarks. Their response was swift and blunt.

Burma’s Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint said that Suu Kyi’s trial was “a matter of internal legal process,” before hitting back directly at the Thais.

“Actually, it is Thailand that needs to forge national reconciliation,” he mused. “Thailand saw year-long demonstrations in which different groups in red, yellow and blue made an attempt to oust the government and jeopardize the Asean Summit.”


It was reminder to its old adversary that the Burmese junta did not make a fuss over Thailand’s “internal affairs”—not the police crackdown on demonstrators in Bangkok, not the bombings and attempted assassinations, nor even the undignified exit by Asean leaders (including Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein) by helicopter from the Asean Summit in Pattaya.

No, Burma did not complain nor even express “concern” over the instability caused by anti-government factions in Thailand.

And the junta expected that gesture to be reciprocated.

Having being forced to forego the Asean chairmanship in the past for its abysmal human rights record, Burma was in no position to lecture the Thai government about “Asean’s image” and the importance of not “losing face.”

But, like a polite neighbor who refrains from saying a word when the family next door keeps him awake all night with their arguing, the Burmese junta was astounded when the Thai government came knocking on the generals’ door, wagging a finger in their face and complaining about the noise from their domestic disagreement.

The Abhisit government’s criticism of the Suu Kyi affair was compounded by the fact it was speaking as chairman of Asean.

Back in Naypyidaw, the Burmese generals were fuming. They reciprocated with insults and petty threats in the state-run press.

Quoting a story from Bangkok’s Thai Rath newspaper on May 28, the Burmese regime’s mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, reported that Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the leader of Thailand’s 2006 military coup, had warned: “If Thailand gets into a conflict with Burma, Thailand will be facing defeat.”

Sonthi was quoted as going on to remind his compatriots that Burma has onshore and offshore natural resources and the potential to produce nuclear power.

However, despite the veiled compliment that Sonthi offered the junta, the underlying feeling in Naypyidaw must now be that although previous Thai government’s had been dependable as mouthpieces and apologists for the regime, with the Democrats in power in Bangkok, the Burmese leaders can no longer rely on the Thai government to provide a buffer for them to hide behind.

Indeed, Bangkok’s relations with Burma since the junta seized power more than 20 years ago have often cast the Kingdom in an unflattering light.

In 1988, the blood on the streets of Rangoon had hardly had a chance to dry before the Thai government was arranging high-level visits to cement a relationship with the new regime based on economic cooperation.

When Thaksin Shinawatra became the Thai prime minister in 2001 the relationship between Bangkok and the Burmese generals remained cozy. Thaksin and his ministers often defended the regime at international forums, diverting the Burma issue from the centre stage.

Though Thaksin was ousted in 2006 coup, his successors had until recently continued to play a major role in protecting the Burmese regime.

Read former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej after returning from a goodwill trip to Burma in March 2008 shortly after the regime had ruthlessly put down the monk-led Saffron Revolution.

“Burma is a Buddhist country. Burma’s leaders meditate,” he cryptically told reporters upon his return to Bangkok. “They say the country lives in peace.”

Samak’s Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama also offered a helping hand by stating that he disagreed with the Western policy of sanctions against the Burmese government.

He went an extra step by appearing to covet collaboration with Burma’s political process: “If Myanmar wants assistance [with its referendum] from Thailand, we are ready to offer help as a friendly country,” he said.

He then offered to explain the “seven-step road map” to a skeptical international community, but was careful to add that he was not taking on the role of the Burmese junta’s spokesman.

Of course not—he was simply toeing the line.

Those were the good old days, and Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his thugs in Naypyidaw enjoyed them enormously.

But with Thailand under the fresh leadership of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the generals know well that a rocky relationship with Bangkok is looming.

In days gone by, the junta would simply divide the Thai army’s generals from its government with lucrative incentives.

From the time of late Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan to the current Thai government, Bangkok has continually pursued a policy of “constructive engagement” with Burma.

As its largest trading partner, Thailand has grown fat but dependent on Burma’s natural resources and cheap labor.

Only during the two-term reign of former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai was Thailand’s Burma policy guided by principles other than economic self-interest.

In 1993, the Chuan government allowed a powerful group of Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit Thailand to lobby for the release of fellow laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and to highlight the desire for democracy in Burma.

The regime in Rangoon was furious and the relationship became 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.

As a result, troops from both sides amassed on the border, leading to skirmishes and repeated border closures.

Relations between the two countries were at their lowest ebb.

Now Burma is telling the Thai government to mind its own business and not to interfere in its neighbor’s internal affairs.

This is the basis of the Burmese regime’s “peaceful co-existence” and “independent and non-aligned” foreign policy that it claims to exercise.

The Burmese military government has always hoped that in joining the Asean, the bloc would act as a shield through its own versed policy of non-interference.

The generals think they can continue to cling to power, lock up dissidents and abuse ethnic nationalities while its eastern neighbor turns a blind eye.

They decided to lock up Suu Kyi and throw away the key. And when the Thai foreign minister barked at them, they bit back.

So there’s no happy ending to this tale: both neighbors are calling each other names and telling the other to put his house back in order.

They have reached a diplomatic impasse—and that is the result of a “non-interference” policy.

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