What do the Thai demonstrations mean for Burma?

Sep 5, 2008 (DVB), Political tensions are running high in Thailand, with demonstrators from the People's Alliance for Democracy calling for the resignation of the government led by Samak Sundaravej.

While the likely outcome of the protests is not yet clear, any new developments could have a significant impact on Thai-Burmese relations and on the political situation in Burma.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, editor of the Nation, said he did not expect the demonstrations to lead to another coup.

"I don't think the army will stage a coup this time. They will stay as observers for the moment, keeping a carefully eye on developments. For the moment, the police have a very important role in keeping public order and I think, in the end, it is Samak who has to decide whether to give in or not, because at the moment it seems to me that there is a deadlock, with no way out.

"But with the resignation of foreign minister Tej Bunnag [on 3 September], Samak's position is getting weaker every day. I don't think Samat's cabinet will last for long because the government has lost credibility , the foreign minister is one of the most respected officials in the Thai government."

Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw said it was too early to tell what the outcome of the demonstrations would be.

"We can't say anything definite yet. The reason is that PAD also has to relent. If the two sides continue to square off, I think there could be the prospect of bloodshed. But, what is extraordinary about this is, in this country, is that even if there is a big uprising like this, there is no unilateral crackdown. Diplomats in Bangkok say that if it were in Burma, it would only last about two days.

"[In 2006] there was a military coup and people said it would not happen again, but the situation favours a military coup. Although they are saying that there will not be another coup, no one, including political experts, can say exactly what will happen in the future. But in this country, even if there is a coup, people regard it as a national holiday. No one believes it is as bad as it would be in Burma."

Aung Zaw contrasted the brutal crackdowns of the Burmese army on demonstrators with Thailand's bloodless coup in 2006, where people welcomed soldiers with flowers.

"Although a state of emergency has been declared, the restrictions that brings only apply to areas where there are demonstrations while in other areas the situation is continuing as normal.

"These are the differences between the Thai army and the Burmese army, Thai politics and Burmese politics, and the thinking in the two countries."

But since neither Samak nor his predecessor Thaksin came to power in a coup but through democratic elections, some international observers have questioned why the protestors are trying to bring down elected representatives.

Kavi said he believed the Thai people had a particular concept of democracy.

"For Thai people, democracy is more than the electoral process. In many countries, the electoral process is one of the most important yardsticks for democracy. But in Thailand it is only a part of it. And I think a lot of it has to do with the Thais' concerns about the morals of their leaders and the leaders' good governance. In the case of Samak, I think his character is highly questionable. There are many court cases pending at the moment.

"I think Thailand looks at elections as part of a broader conception of the democratic process but not the only component, while in many foreign countries, the electoral process is sacred. If you win by one or two votes you have won, and others have to wait for the next round of election to come back to challenge the incumbent. And I think in Thailand, people do not have that kind of patience, so they demonstrate, to expose the government's mismanagement, corruption and all that.

"That explains why a lot of people continue to join in the demonstrations , even though from time to time they are threatened with arrest or the use of force, they keep coming out in large numbers."

Aung Zaw said the situation in Thailand could have a major impact in Burma.

"It has a great impact. General Than Shwe and his clique like Thaksin, Samak and so on – we know this from internal sources. General Than Shwe once said that he could play politics of Burma with various tricks, by taking out the Thai-Burmese border trades.

"Moreover, prime ministers Thaksin and Samat have made much of defending Burma in Thailand, as [Samak] did recently when he went to Burma and said that the general meditates and is religious and a good person and the like. He has a reputation as an ambassador for Burma, and the government of Burma is very worried that his government will collapse."

Military analyst Htay Aung, who is based on the Thai-Burmese border, believes that an end to the Samak government could lead to a cooling of relations between Thailand and the junta.

"If Samak's government falls, the relationship between the Burmese military government and Thailand may not be as warm as it has been in the past. For example, when Thaksin first came to power, he changed some infantry chiefs and the commander of Brigade 3 whom the Burmese government didn't like.

"If this government falls and a new government takes over, the pressure on the Thai army will decrease and the relationship with Burma's military government could become tense."

Htay Aung said that a victory for the Thai protestors could have a psychological impact in Burma and could boost moral among opposition activists.

"If the Thai people are successful, this could be a source of encouragement for the people of Burma, and the strength of the opposition against the military government could increase."

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw

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