Turning Thailand's buffer zone into a battlefield

Thai-Burmese relations have always been erratic and they have hinged primarily on the types of leadership that have been seen on the Thai side. The Democrat government led by Chuan Leekpai from 1997-2001 implemented a hostile policy toward the Burmese junta to placate the western world. But when billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was elected prime minister in 2001, bilateral ties became warm and amicable, and Burma as a historical enemy became Thailand’s friendly trading partner overnight.

Since the downfall of Thaksin in 2006, it is fair to say that Thailand has had no real policy toward Burma. Such floundering has unfortunately left Thai leaders in a disadvantageous position, in particular making them ill-equipped to comprehend the drastic changes in Burma which have taken place in the past few years. Now that Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin, is in power, she is obliged to readjust the Thai approach so as to take benefit from the “civilianised Burma”. Any new policy will cause an inevitable impact on the Thai relations with the regime in Naypyidaw, the opposition as well as the ethnic minorities inside Burma.

Yingluck returned on Tuesday from her first official visit to Burma, where she met with President Thein Sein. High on the agenda in her talks with the government was the promotion of existing ties through bilateral frameworks and the strengthening of economic relations, such as the guaranteeing of Burma’s exports of gas and oil to Thailand and the Thai investment in the deep-sea port project in Tavoy. Yingluck also met with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest in November last year. Could this mean that Thailand is now diversifying its foreign policy options when it comes to its ties with Burma? So far, it seems that Yingluck is interested in reaching out to the opposition in Burma, and perhaps in aiding political reconciliation in the country.

Regardless of whether the reforms in Burma will be long term or simply superficial, the global community has welcomed political change in the country. The US has shifted its policy toward Naypyidaw. This could possibly lead to a lifting of sanctions against Burma in the near future. Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently granted the chairmanship to Burma for the year 2014. Suddenly, both friends and enemies of Burma have rushed to legitimise the Thein Sein regime. The Yingluck government is likely to go along with this trend. But a question emerges: How would a new Thai policy impact other aspects of the bilateral relationship?

For several decades, Thailand has turned vast areas under the occupation of ethnic insurgents along its common border with Burma into a buffer zone. As a result, while it forged strong ties with some ethnic minorities, particularly the Karen National Union (KNU), Thailand’s dealings with the Burmese government were characterised with suspicion and distrust.

If Yingluck is to follow in the footsteps of ASEAN and the US where state-to-state relations are to be consolidated at the expense of her country’s traditional ties with some ethnic minorities, she may expect to see some instability or insecurity along the border. Not all ethnic minorities in Burma are happy with the way political power has been distributed. After all, this is a game of power sharing among the Burmese elite. Even Suu Kyi has not made her policy clear on ethnic minorities and power distribution. Thus, with Yingluck’s legitimisation of the Thein Sein regime, bilateral relations may flourish; yet, some parts of the Thai-Burmese border could be transformed into battle zones.

This scenario could exacerbate the situation regarding human right violations against refugees from various ethnic minorities in Thailand. Discussions on this issue point to the fact that part of the Thai policy toward Burma has been dominated by the Thai military, particularly that involving national security. Sadly, the Thai army has lacked a sense of humanitarianism. The human right violations against the Rohingya in recent years have reaffirmed the Thai army’s attitude toward refugees from Burma. The Yingluck government itself has attempted to avoid upsetting the military for the sake of its own survival. Therefore, one should not expect that Yingluck would be entertaining a refugees-friendly policy, and definitely not when she also wishes to please the Burmese regime for Thailand’s economic benefits.

From this perspective, what is considered a new policy toward Burma, under the Yingluck administration, may not be new at all. Ultimately, Yingluck is just a Thaksin surrogate. She has shown scant vision in foreign affairs. Her ruling party, Pheu Thai, has never confirmed a commitment to promoting democracy, both insideThailandand toward neighbouring countries.

It is a pity that Yingluck, despite being a relatively young and fresh prime minister, might only grasp few of the opportunities that arrive with the changes in Burma. There will be many unanswered questions: can Thailand reposition itself in mainland Southeast Asia now that Burma has gradually become a normal state? Can Thailand take advantage from Burma’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014? And how can a new Burma contribute to the community building process of ASEAN of which Thailand is a member?

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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