Sunday, January 4, 2009

Understanding new Thai policy towards Burma

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation
Published on January 5, 2009

AFTER EIGHT YEARS, it will not be easy to undo the Thai foreign policy towards Burma initiated by the Thaksin-led government and its nominees. A complete overhaul of the Burma policy is out of the question. However, some major shifts by the current government could be forthcoming that would firm up bilateral ties and strengthen Bangkok's voice on Burma within Asean. Additional principled guidelines, drawing from the Asean Charter, are imperative aimed at supporting the international community's effort to promote an open society there.

Gone quickly would be the preponderance of one-man decisions on key policies, especially those dealing with cross-border security, investment and trade cooperation.

In the past few years, Thailand has been rather compromising in its security considerations in exchange for economic benefits, which often went to individuals rather than the country as a whole. In particular, from 2001 to 2006, the Thai side allowed the Burmese side greater leeway along the 2004-km border such as issues related to Burmese migrant workers, illegal cross-border activities and harassment of minorities and Burmese exiles.

Picking up the pieces of Burmese policy where the Democrat-led government left off in early 2001, this time around the Thai foreign policy will be decided in a transparent way without any hanky panky as in the past. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said succinctly that from now on, Thailand will deal with Burma in a straightforward manner without any dubious deals or transactions based on "four-eye meetings", which was the trademark of Thaksin's personalised diplomacy.

Prior to the return of the Democrat-led government, Thai-Burmese relations were very superficially closed, representing no real national agenda. Thai leaders were myopic, deluded in thinking that defending the Burmese regime within Asean and the international community would help them win favours from the junta leaders and subsequently secure the country's future energy and natural resources need. Indeed, the energy dependence on Burma was exaggerated to justify Thailand's closer ties with Burma, including its passivity.

Throughout the year 1999-2000, before Thaksin came to power, the Burmese people's struggle for democracy and open society was at its peak with all the support of the international community. Asean was far more united as far as peer pressure on Burma was concerned. Thailand dutifully played the leading role on Burma throughout by bringing in the international community. Former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan, currently the Asean secretary-general, pushed Asean to engage in enhanced dialogue with Burma as well as emerging transnational issues affecting the region.

However, soon after the arrival of the Thaksin-led government in early 2001, Thai policy towards Burma turned upside down. After a few weeks of border tension and tough talks on Burma's role on cross-border illegal drugs trade, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra unexpectedly softened his Burmese policy, much to the chagrin of the international community. Since then, Thailand's credibility on Burma has disappeared.

During the Cambodian conflict, Thailand's role in Asean as a frontline state was well recognised as it was pursued based on the region's interest, not tempered with vested personal interests. Asean helped to internationalise the conflict playing out at the UN continuously for nearly a decade, which gave Asean an international voice, before the Paris peace agreement in 1989. In Burma's case, it was the opposite. Thailand failed miserably to assert itself in the Asean overall approaches albeit it was the most affected by the Burmese growing oppression. Bangkok's willingness to play second fiddle to Burma further divided Asean and stymied broader cooperation with international community.

Subsequent revelations by Surakiart Sathiratai, foreign minister in the Thaksin government, showed that investment and commercial deals with Burma at that time were not honest as they were coaxed with conflict of interest.

The scandal over the Export and Import Bank of Thailand's Bt4-billion loan to the junta was just one example. Like rubbing more salt into the wounds, former prime ministers Samak Sundravej and Somchai Wongsawat made ridiculous remarks defending Burma.

Samak was the most embarrassing as he praised the military junta leaders as peace-loving leaders and boasted about their closed friendship. Under the Surayud Chulanont government (2006-7), Thailand maintained a strict policy of no new contacts or improvement of existing ties.

Burma could have made a transition to democracy if the Thai governments in question had not indulged in personalising, nationalising and making the Burmese problem bilateral. The leader's personal and group interests linked to Burma weakened not only Thai credibility, it also belittled Bangkok's voice within Asean. That helps explain why in the absence of a Thai role, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have become more pro-active in shaping the grouping's views and positions on Burma.

Coming to power at this juncture poses serious challenges to both Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Foreign Minister Kasit on Burmese policy. They have to revitalise and synergise the role of Thailand, Asean and the international community to move the situation in Burma forward.

At present, the Asean Charter, imperfect as it is, will serve as a useful tool to encourage reluctant Asean countries to get more involved on issues of human rights and democracy. The rumblings over the charter's ratification in Indonesia and Philippines were indicative of the strong desire for such endeavour.

As the Asean chair, Thai leaders will adopt a comprehensive strategy on Burma that put together various parts and needs from within region. Furthermore, this strategy must also work in tandem with the current international efforts, especially through the offices of the United Nations and related agencies and its special envoy.

After all, the Burmese quagmire is not the problem of any particular country or regional community.

It must be kept at the multilateral level so that all stakeholders can work together to end the current impasse and sufferings.

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