Burma acts the bully on Thailand

Larry Jagan

June 24, 2009 (DVB), Relations between Thailand and Burma are set to deteriorate dramatically following Bangkok's warning that the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi could all but destroy Burma's already fragile credibility.

Thailand's current position on Burma is stronger than usual, bolstered by concerns that Burma's behaviour, by implication, would also impact on the credibility of the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc. The junta of course dismisses these concerns, citing the ASEAN mantra of non-interference in its defense. But this time Burma's political games are certain to be met with more pressure from its Asian allies and neighbours, especially Thailand.

The vexed issue of Burma is high on the agenda of Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's current visit to Beijing. He will certainly discuss the issue with his counterpart, Wen Jiabao, and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, according to Thai government officials. The junta's antics are all the more pressing now with detailed information emerging on the regime's connection to Pyongyang; and now the North Korean ship en route to Rangoon has increased the temperature.

Apart from North Korean missiles and possible nuclear technology, there is much for Bangkok and Beijing to discuss during this trip. A key issue will also be the preparations for the ASEAN Foreign Ministers retreat in Phuket, and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) where the problems in Burma will also overshadow other important issues at time when the region is reeling from the effects of the international financial crisis and credit crunch.

A statement prepared for the meeting by the Indonesians is likely to be endorsed by China. China understands that at present its best strategic position is to strongly support Thailand as the ASEAN chair, as later this year Vietnam takes over and Hanoi will be less inclined to engage the Chinese.

Under the Thai chairmanship, ASEAN has begun to take a more aggressive position on Burma, and issued a strongly worded statement after Aung San Suu Kyi was put on trial last month. "With the eyes of the international community on Myanmar at present, the honour and the credibility of the Government of the Union of Myanmar are at stake," the statement said.

But the Thais went a step further and specifically raised the issue of the pro-democracy leader's detention. "The Government of the Union of Myanmar is reminded that the ASEAN Leaders had called for the immediate release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," said the statement. This was a reference to the Chairman's statement at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2003, after she was attacked by pro-government thugs and detained in May that year. It was later endorsed by the ASEAN leaders at their summit on the Indonesian island of Bali in October.

The Burmese government, as expected, reacted angrily. "Thailand's statement is not in conformity with ASEAN practices, incorrect in facts, and interfering with the internal affairs of Myanmar," was the official response.

But behind the scenes, relations between the countries are in free-fall, according to diplomats based in Bangkok and Rangoon. "There is no doubt that the offensive against the Karen [along the border with Thailand] is in part intended to be a warning to Thailand not to interfere," the Burmese academic based at Chiang Mai University, Win Min told DVB.

While it may not be in direct response to the Thai statement, it is clearly aimed at sending a cautionary message to the Thai government that any interference in Burmese affairs will bring about a strong Burmese reaction. Gone is the conciliatory approach in discussions between the country's two foreign ministers in April, when the Thai foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, went to Naypyidaw and was asked to help broker peace talks with the Karen National Union.

Now Thailand is increasingly alarmed at Burma's plans to acquire nuclear technology, including for military purposes. Recent revelations of the myriad of tunnels being built by North Korean engineers and workers in Naypyidaw and along the Thai border in Shan state, has given the Thai authorities a significant jolt. But even more disturbing is the news that North Korea may be about to provide Burma with medium-range missiles, sophisticated anti-aircraft and radar systems, including surface-to-surface (SCUD) missiles with a 700 kilometer range, that can only be aimed at Thai territory. It is highly likely that the cargo of the North Korean Kang Nam ship includes missiles, according to South Korean intelligence sources.

Thailand of course is still searching for a means to maintain the pressure on Burma, while trying to find ways to lessen the tension between the two countries. Thailand's position on Aung San Suu Kyi, and the national reconciliation process, will not weaken, even under the Burmese blackmail threats.

In a recent interview, the Thai prime minister made the government's position clear: "Clearly our stance has been and will always be that the political process in Myanmar will have to be inclusive to gain the acceptability and respectability of the international community. Otherwise, obviously, Myanmar's credibility and ASEAN's credibility will be affected."

When the former Thai foreign minister, Surakiart Sathirathai, tried to support the Burmese regime's plans for political reform , Khin Nyunt's roadmap to democracy — through his creation of the Bangkok process in 2003, he was roundly condemned by the junta's top leaders.

"We reject Thailand's 'mega-phone' diplomacy", the deputy leader of Burmese military intelligence, Major General Kyaw Win told me. This was a reference to the Thai foreign minister's frequent briefing of Thai and foreign journalists on the progress of negotiations and talks , sometimes elaborating his views which were not always directly communicated to his counterpart beforehand.

But of course the regime has no qualms about resorting to a megaphone approach when it suits them. Its latest tirade against the Thai government was an article by Kyaw Ye Min accusing the Thai authorities of aiding and abetting the insurgent movements , especially the Karen , by allowing refugee camps in Thailand.

The junta was irritated by the Thai foreign minister's suggestion that jailing Aung San Suu Kyi was in effect a threat to the region. "At present relations between the two countries are under [a] strain which is unprecedented in history," said the writer in the state-mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper. He suggested the only way for harmonious relations to be reestablished was for Bangkok to "cooperate with us in genuine goodwill". In other words, stop publicly criticising and pressuring Burma , something the Democrat-led government is unlikely to do.

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