Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s official visit to Myanmar on Oct. 9 and 10 was his first introductory tour since he assumed the Thai premiership last month.
Traditionally Thai leaders prioritize a visit to neighbor members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to boost bilateral ties. In Prayuth’s case, the objective was more complicated than simply strengthening their relationship.
Having faced soft sanctions from some Western governments, Prayuth’s choice of Myanmar for his first foreign trip seemed rationale. Thai-Myanmar relations have often been erratic, shaped by insecurities along their common borders such as ethnic conflicts, the flow of Burmese refugees and the drug trade. Prayuth sought close cooperation from Myanmar to overcome some of these lingering problems.
At a deeper level, however, Prayuth hoped to exploit his trip to Myanmar by adding a layer of legitimacy to his regime. Myanmar has in recent years been in the spotlight for its drastic political transformation. After long years of military rule, Myanmar in 2010 held its first general elections in 20 years.
Shortly afterward, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading opposition figure (National League for Democracy) was released from her lengthy house arrest. Suddenly a sense of optimism could be felt in Myanmar. U.S. President Barack Obama even abandoned his hostile policy, as he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar in November 2012.
Prayuth might have hoped his tour in Myanmar would spin some positive press as Thailand undergoes a similar political transformation — from corruption politics to responsible democracy. After all, the two countries now share political similarities. For example, while 25 percent of Myanmar’s parliamentarians consist of military men, the Thai parliament can count more than half of its members as from the army.
Myanmar responded favorably to the Thai visit and was enthusiastic in doing its part to provide legitimacy to Thai military rule. Earlier in July, President Thein Sein had sent Supreme Commander Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to Bangkok to pay a courtesy call on the Thai junta. Shockingly he extolled the Thai coup makers with remarks like “It was right to seize power to protect national security and people’s safety.”
Min Aung Hlaing compared the turmoil in Thailand with his country’s traumatic experience in August 1988, when the Myanmar military launched a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy activists on the streets of Yangon.
However, Prayuth’s much-publicized visit to Myanmar could plainly backfire, because the international community has begun to cast doubt on the seriousness of the political reforms undertaken by the Thein Sein regime.
On the surface, developments toward a more open society in Myanmar can be detected, such as the widespread use of the Internet, guarantees of press freedom and open political activities by opposition parties. But in another reality, democratization in Myanmar has stagnated. The government remains reluctant to support amending the constitution to reduce the military’s presence in politics. More importantly, it has insisted on prohibiting Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president in 2015 on the grounds she had a foreign spouse and has foreign children.
Myanmar has come under mounting criticism over the entrenchment of the military’s position in politics, now protected under a legitimate parliamentary system. In addition, the government has continued to alienate the Rohingya — Muslims living in Rakhine state — who have been drawn into violent conflicts with local Buddhists.