Thailand’s proximity to Myanmar means that its foreign ministry is singing a different and more positive tune on Myanmar from the rest of ASEAN. Whether the notes clash against the larger symphony remains to be seen.
Thailand has articulated a bilateral policy towards Myanmar that seemingly breaks with that of ASEAN. In November 2021, Thai deputy prime minister and foreign minister Don Pramudwinai revealed that he had visited Myanmar and met coup leader Min Aung Hlaing. On 22 December 2022, Thailand held a meeting with representatives from mainland Southeast Asia – Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – including Myanmar. Another meeting with Myanmar stakeholders from Thailand and Myanmar occurred in February 2023. Both the latter meetings included ministers from Myanmar’s military government, the State Administration Council (SAC). These meetings appear to contravene ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus (5PC) that ASEAN member states agreed upon in April 2021.
Thailand’s policy towards Myanmar reflects its long history of articulating an independent policy on relations with its mainland neighbours. Thailand regards this practice as well within its sovereign right and one that is much justified by untoward developments in nearby countries. For example, it may be remembered that the country had an alliance strategy with the United States (under the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation auspices) during the Cold War to deflect the threat of communism from Vietnam. Following the communist victory at the conclusion of the Second Indochina War in 1975 and the withdrawal of the U.S. from the region, Thailand aligned with China. That policy lasted from 1975 to 1988 and was again meant to secure an external guarantor against the Thais’ perceived security and political threat from Vietnam.
Towards the end of the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in 1988, it was Thailand that began a policy of engagement with Vietnam under the government of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan. The policy of converting the battlefields of Indochina into marketplaces may be remembered for effectively downgrading the security threat from Vietnam. It paved the way for Thailand to reset its relations with Vietnam to be more positive.
Thailand currently appears to be involved in a similar attempt to reset its policy towards Myanmar; relations had previously been less than cordial. Bangkok’s earlier policy towards Myanmar was premised on a historical perception of threat dating back to the Burmese victory and destruction of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1767. This perception is deeply ingrained: Thai policy planners have long sought to contain the threat from Myanmar by pursuing a buffer policy of supporting ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) along their common border, including the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S).
Since the collapse of Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) government in Burma in 1988, Thailand has been working on realigning its Myanmar policy. However, it has not been consistent or clear. Democratically elected governments in Thailand in the 1990s were more critical of the Myanmar military junta that suppressed the student-led pro-democracy movement in 1988. Thai governments led by military elites on the other hand have had strong linkages with their counterparts in Myanmar. That was certainly true of the Thai government since May 2014 that first came to power through a military coup against the Yingluck Shinawatra government.
Following Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup in February 2021, his first foreign trip was to Thailand to meet with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Additionally, Min Aung Hlaing regarded the late Thai former premier General Prem Tinsulanond as his “godfather”. Furthermore, the Thai military has had longstanding influence over the crafting of Thailand’s foreign policy towards its mainland neighbours. While the Thailand-Myanmar Joint Committee on Bilateral Relations controlled by the Thai Foreign Ministry plays an important role in diplomacy, the Thai Third Army deployed across the border from Myanmar is one of the most active commands dealing with spillover effects of the ongoing violence within Myanmar.
Within ASEAN, Thailand regards itself as the most affected by the situation in Myanmar.
Within ASEAN, Thailand regards itself as the most affected by the situation in Myanmar. By one account, it reportedly hosts over 20,000 refugees and illegal migrants. Separately, Thailand is reliant on oil and especially gas imports from the Yadana field located in the Andaman Sea offshore from Myanmar. Thailand’s state-owned oil and gas company, PTT Exploration and Production, bought out the investments of Chevron and Total when they divested from Myanmar after the 2021 coup. There is also Thailand’s heavy reliance on formal and informal labour from Myanmar for the agriculture and fisheries, construction and manufacturing, and service sectors. Thailand was Myanmar’s largest trading partner in 2021 and its businesses are well represented in Myanmar in food and beverages, and pharmaceuticals.
The above reasons explain the current policy push led by Thailand’s foreign minister and his special adviser and envoy, Pornpimol Kanchanalak. The policy involves broad-based engagement with Myanmar nationals and NGOs as well as the SAC, and more discreet dealings with the National Unity Government (NUG). The hope is that Thailand may be able to reset bilateral relations using humanitarian assistance first, which would then allow for a more mutually beneficial developmental relationship.
There are several problems with Thailand’s bilateral policy on Myanmar. First, it confers legitimacy on the SAC – this is anathema to many in ASEAN. Thailand must somehow persuade others in ASEAN about its preferred approach. Second, the Thai national election transition after mid-May 2023 and the subsequent Thai government, especially if a non-military affiliated prime minister succeeds Chan-ocha, may have an impact on the policy’s sustainability. Third, the Thai population is known to be sympathetic towards Myanmar citizens and at odds with both the Thai and Myanmar militaries. However, the Thais might eventually succeed because they are engaging with those in power.
N. Ganesan is Professor of Southeast Asian politics at the Graduate School of Peace Studies, Hiroshima Peace Institute, Japan.