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Few next-door neighbours have moved so far in an opposite political direction than Thailand and Burma. After more than half a century of military dictatorship from 1962, Burma has returned to democratic rule with a free and fair election last November and now a civilian-led government under Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Over the same period, Thailand progressed in fits and starts from military-authoritarianism to popular rule only to revert to dictatorship, enabled by two military coups in 2006 and 2014.
The reversal of political fortunes in these two Southeast Asian countries is instructive. It shows the imperative of compromise and accommodation in deeply polarised societies to reach a moving, workable balance.
While under its long military-authoritarian rule, Burma faced international opprobrium, suffocated under the weight of Western sanctions, and became a sick member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). With its Burma baggage, ASEAN frequently had to skip or scale down top-level meetings with major democratic governments, and Burma itself had to ignominiously forego its rotational chairmanship of the 10-member grouping in 2005.
When they ushered in reforms, Burma’s top generals wanted to survive by making concessions and keeping much of what they previously had. But they also underestimated how political liberalisation could generate its own infectious momentum, especially when spearheaded by a quiet but committed leadership. When President Thein Sein, a retired top general, freed political prisoners, released Suu Kyi from her house arrest and instituted broad-based reforms to open up the economy and politics from 2011, his administration was quickly overwhelmed by the force and logic of basic rights and freedoms that had been unleashed.
The costs of rolling back Thein Sein’s reforms soon became too high for Burma’s military — also known as the Tatmadaw — which stood by its constitutional compromise. By constitutional design, the military automatically takes a 25 percent cut in the legislature where a 75 percent majority is required for charter amendments, and controls three security-related ministries for home affairs, defence, and borders. With another clause banning Suu Kyi from the presidency for having family members who are foreign nationals, this set-up represented the military’s end of the bargain.
As the NLD won 77 percent of contested seats in parliament (compared with 10 percent for the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party), the ball has been in Suu Kyi’s court. Appointing a lifelong confidant, Htin Kyaw, as a titular president, she has astutely carved out an unprecedented new role as “state counselor” to oversee government affairs. As a complement, she has also become a minister attached to the President’s Office and Burma’s foreign minister, effectively the country’s spokeswoman.
So far the Tatmadaw has kept its word and allowed Suu Kyi and the NLD a free hand. Led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the generals apparently do not want to return to their old atrocious ways under dictatorship. The onus will be on Suu Kyi to reciprocate by displaying magnanimity over vindictiveness. If she were to immediately go after vested interests of the generals and their cronies or somehow ram through constitutional changes to make her president in short order, for example, the civil-military accommodation could unravel.
Yet she has to assure a semblance of transitional justice for past military misdeeds and tackle corruption from the military period. Suu Kyi will need to manage expectations and deliver results on the ground while ensuring her civilian-led administration keeps the military at bay — a tightrope exercise of the highest order for Burma.
Unlike Burma, Thailand has been stuck in a holding pattern between the electoral forces of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his party machine on the one hand and his royalist-conservative adversaries on the other. Against the old political order from the Cold War that gravitated around the military, monarchy and bureaucracy, Thaksin exploited the inexorable tide of globalisation and democratisation to great success by winning all Thai elections since 2001. But the vested interests and family-business links that accompanied his rule led to corruption and abuse of power by his personalised regime.
His conflicts of interest and unassailable parliamentary majority paved the way for a military takeover in September 2006 after months of yellow-clad anti-Thaksin street protests. The generals routinely came up with a new constitution designed to clip Thaksin’s electoral power by making the Senate half-appointed and shifting power to the judiciary.
Yet Thaksin’s party still carried the polls, and more yellow-shirt demonstrations ensued and ended up with an opposition-led government. But Thaksin eventually came back through his youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who won the election in July 2011.
Just as his sister’s government became stable in power, Thaksin gave his rivals another chance by introducing an amnesty bill in October 2013 that would have freed him of all criminal charges and a conviction, enabling him to return home. The amnesty gambit led to more street protests by the yellow side and yet another putsch in the following May by the same fraternal band of generals who staged the preceding coup.
This time, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Thailand’s generals are taking no chances. They have ruled directly in government and appointed only a handful of technocrats. The junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), came up with an interim constitution that equipped General Prayut with absolute power in a remarkable reincarnation of past military dictatorships. Hundreds of dissidents have been detained for up to seven days at military barracks against their will. Human rights advocates have been intimidated, journalists harassed.
The NCPO installed a rubber-stamp legislature, “pro-reform” assembly, Constitution Drafting Committee, and cabinet led by none other than General Prayut himself. The culmination of the coup is now a military-inspired draft constitution that vests substantial power in a military-appointed Senate that can keep any elected government in check for an interim period of five years during the generals’ 20-year reform drive to take Thailand to where they think it should be going. In addition, the constitution stipulates that the elected prime minister does not have to be an elected representative, thereby opening the door for a junta choice.
If the constitution passes the referendum on 7 August, polls are supposed to take place in 2017. Tensions have mounted as civil society and political parties have come out against the overtly pro-military charter.
Many who earlier encouraged a military intervention to restore law and order, and others under the impression that the military’s safeguarding role during the royal transition was essential, are having second thoughts. For the foreseeable future, Thailand’s ruling generals appear to be hunkering down for long-term rule and brooking no dissent in the process. Thus the road ahead for Thailand will mostly likely be marked by more turmoil.
What Thailand needs is the kind of compromise and accommodation seen in Burma. To get there, Thailand’s political crisis and polarisation has to bottom out to a point where all sides exhaustively come to the realisation that none could win it all and therefore bargaining and negotiation cannot be avoided. It took Burma’s military regime almost five decades to come to terms with this reality. Many Thailand watchers at home and abroad hope it will not take Burma’s neighbour as long.
This article originally appeared in The Bangkok Post. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.