The crisis in Myanmar is a delicate one for Thailand, given the military junta’s proclivity to drawing parallels between the two ASEAN countries. To help manage the crisis, Bangkok can play the role of a peacemaker to engage all parties concerned in Myanmar.
When the US organised the Summit for Democracy in December 2021, the news buzz in Bangkok was about why Thailand was not invited to participate. While the Foreign Ministry officially reiterated Thailand’s values of democracy and human rights, many viewed the lack of an invitation as a rebuke of the country’s own record.
The pertinent question here: does Thailand have a values-based foreign policy? Thailand’s policy statement emphasises conducting diplomatic relations in a balanced and stable manner based on the principles of ‘mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual benefit’. This is more an articulation of a principles-based pragmatism than a set of values.
Thailand’s foreign policy has largely been influenced by its domestic politics, which is fragmented and divided. After all, the country experienced the political legacy of two military coups, one in 2006 and another in 2014. When Thailand was under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), its diplomatic effort was mainly focused on explaining to the world (somewhat counter-intuitively) why the coup was a necessary step for the country’s democracy.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is acutely aware of international criticisms about the legitimacy of his regime. However, unlike previous coup-makers, he tends to present his own public image on the world stage as a way of building confidence. When the NCPO was dissolved after the 2019 election, the Prime Minister’s international profile was bolstered when Thailand held the Chairmanship of ASEAN that same year.
Nevertheless, the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on dissidents in recent years has called into question Thailand’s commitment to the rule of law, justice and human rights. Thus, Thailand’s moral authority is often scrutinised when it exerts diplomatic leadership, especially within ASEAN. The most telling example to illustrate this point is the unravelling situation in Myanmar.
Unlike other ASEAN Member States, Thailand is a land-based country that shares a porous border with Myanmar that stretches over 2,000 kilometres. A lot is at stake here. Prior to the 1 February 2021 coup, the usual issues of bilateral concern had to do with cross-border flows of illicit drugs, human trafficking and smuggling, as well as the vital supply of migrant workers from Myanmar.
With the current full-blown civil war in Myanmar, Thailand is facing a looming catastrophe from the influx of fleeing refugees, and possibly the spread of Covid-19 and its Omicron variant. The need to establish a humanitarian corridor in and around the Thailand-Myanmar border is of utmost urgency. If work on this is already ongoing behind the scenes, it is time to put it at the forefront to boost Thailand’s leading role in humanitarian diplomacy.
… Thailand, too, has been dealing with the ghost of its own past when it comes to democratic values. In the early days of the Myanmar coup, for example, the junta leader compared the country’s national situation to the case of Thailand.
However, Bangkok seems to favour quiet diplomacy as its modus operandi. Such a subdued approach, despite recent news of skirmishes spilling over into the Thai border, might come across as a form of appeasement. Alternatively, the Thai leadership can take an even bolder step in articulating its principled foreign policy. It should take an international stand on the dire situation of the human rights of innocent civilians, and go beyond the ASEAN norm of non-intervention.
But Thailand, too, has been dealing with the ghost of its own past when it comes to democratic values. In the early days of the Myanmar coup, for example, the junta leader compared the country’s national situation to the case of Thailand. The linkage underscores Thailand’s difficult position regarding its coup-marked past. In addition, the military top-brass of the two countries have long enjoyed special and close relations.
The reality is that the crisis in Myanmar is a delicate balancing act for Thailand. While the ASEAN 5-Point consensus is a common denominator for the way forward, it remains to be seen whether the Tatmadaw will demonstrate signs of cooperation and peaceful solution. At this, Thailand should consider intensifying its efforts in the following areas.
First, Thailand can play a peacemaker role. Dovetailing the work of the Cambodian ASEAN Chairmanship and the ASEAN Special Envoy on Myanmar, including the United Nations Special Envoy, Thailand should pursue bilateral dialogue proactively with the junta, as well as all the National Unity Government (NUG) and various stakeholders concerned.
Leveraging on its special relationship with Myanmar, Thailand should be in a position to advance the peace dialogue. In the military-led delegation, for example, it should involve experienced professionals and negotiators with a macro-reconciliation map in mind. Here, international lessons learned in the field of transitional justice can be tapped.
Second, Thailand can further promote international partnership. With Thailand being at the frontline to shoulder responsibility on the humanitarian corridor, it should take the lead in convening dialogues with all parties concerned. By so doing, Thailand can share the burden of preventing conflict between the junta and various anti-junta resistance forces, and help uphold human rights. The parties should include the United States, China, Russia, Japan, Australia and the European Union. Doing so would complement the humanitarian objectives of the ASEAN 5-Point Consensus.
For Thailand to recalibrate its principled and pragmatic foreign policy would require not only courage, but also a paradigm shift from the business as usual. While Myanmar is still a daunting challenge, Thailand needs to find a nuanced way to get some traction on the Myanmar issue. If all goes well, the invitation for Thailand to participate in the next Summit for Democracy would not be a surprise gesture.
Vongthep Arthakaivalvatee is Special Advisor at the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ), Bangkok.