Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Samak's remarks on Burma do more damage

By The Nation
Published on August 27, 2008
The PM adds more salt to the wounds by openly endorsing junta's planned 2010 elections

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's recent comments on Burma were ridiculous, even bordering on absurdity. It showed his total ignorance of the situation, and worse yet, he seems to be completely blind to the ongoing efforts by the international community, especially the UN, to bring peace and stability to one of the world's most backward countries. His latest comments added salt to the wound created by his earlier remarks, which also tarnished Thailand's reputation as a democracy.

Samak showed sadistic tendencies when he started criticising the West for demanding that Aung San Suu Kyi be released from her 12-year-long house arrest. He has completely ignored the reality inside Burma, and even very foolishly observed that the West could have a deeper level of discussions with the junta if the opposition party's leader was not part of the scheme. Obviously Samak forgot that Suu Kyi and her party, National League of Democracy, won the 1990 elections by a landslide, but that the military junta refused to recognise their victory.

He also forgot that over the past two decades, the junta has imposed stringent rules over its citizens, building up a tight police state where the public is under constant surveillance. When the Buddhist monks and students took to the streets in September last year to rally against the junta, they were met with force. Asean came out with the strongest statement in its history condemning one of its members, but the junta remained unrepentant.

Now, the junta is moving confidently ahead in imposing its political roadmap on the Burmese people by passing a new constitution in May and planning national elections in 2010. Meanwhile, Samak continues to completely ignore Burma's hunger for democracy.

Thailand has had to support more than two million refugees and migrant workers escaping hardship and oppression in their country. The Thai administration obviously does not realise that making Burma a democracy would be beneficial because the people would want to return home. As the leader of Thailand, Samak should have understood that it is democracy that gave him power in the first place.

However, when he met UN special envoy for Burma Ibrahim Gambari, Samak ended up openly endorsing the junta's planned 2010 election, saying naively that he would talk the junta into allowing outside observers. Samak should have realised that there is no way anybody could influence the junta.

When the international community wanted to help victims of Cyclone Nargis in early May, the junta was recalcitrant. At first, it blocked outside assistance out of fear of intervention, whereas immediate aid could have saved thousands of lives. After repeated assurances by Asean, some international organisations were allowed in. Now, it appears that the junta benefited handsomely from the tricky foreign policy exchange regulations, which enabled the authorities to put millions in their pockets. It is uncertain how much money they have made off with, but the real picture will emerge soon. Already, the news has had an adverse effect on potential sources of assistance.

It is obvious that Samak's stance on Burma will have huge ramifications on Thailand and its standing in the global community. Samak has always been quick to jump on any chance that would help him maintain power, even if it means serving as a front man for a convicted criminal liked Thaksin Shinawatra. Whether or not Samak can continue as prime minister in the weeks ahead, he has already created enough ways to further isolate Thailand. Worse yet, it would further affect the role of the Asean chair over the next 16 months.

With such a strong endorsement of the Burmese junta, it is now possible that some of the Asean dialogue partners would seek to boycott the meetings scheduled in December in Bangkok. Perhaps we should expect more diplomatic disasters if Samak continues as prime minister.

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