Thailand and Myanmar’s militaries get cozy, but at what cost?

The outsized roles played by the Thai and Myanmar militaries in the affairs of their respective countries has led to a close bond between the two. Now, the Myanmar coup has brought them closer than ever – but at what cost to Thailand's standing at home and abroad?

Written By:
March 4, 2021
Thailand and Myanmar’s militaries get cozy, but at what cost?
Myanmar's commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (L) meeting Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha at the government house in Bangkok in September 2019. Photo: Handout/Royal Thai Government/AFP

After Myanmar Senior General and now-Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power on February 1, one of his earliest acts was to compose a letter to Thai Prime Minis­ter Prayut Chan-o-cha explaining why the military had taken control and asked for help to support democracy. 

More than a month since the Tatmadaw took power and detained Aung San Suu Kyi, democracy appears to have been suppressed, while ties between Thailand and neighbouring Myanmar are drawing closer. While within the context of ASEAN, Thailand has played host to talks between the Tatmadaw-appointed foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Southeast Asian countries, led by Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi, the Prayut government’s relationship with the Myanmar military has been somewhat less than neutral. 

Thailand’s relationship with its historic rival is extraordinarily complicated and stretches across several administrations – both military-led and democratically elected. Portrayed for generations as an aggressive neighbour, who in the past invaded the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya on more than one occasion, Myanmar has been a convenient enemy and focal point for Thai nationalism.  

In recent years, animosity has grown over a number of border-related issues, such as the flow of Myanmar refugees into Thailand, human trafficking, and transnational crime – namely the spread of heroin and methamphetamines. However, it was economic benefits that prompted a new era of cooperation. After promising to turn battlefields into marketplaces, Thailand opened up to the idea of letting Myanmar into ASEAN in the mid-1990s and took advantage of every opportunity to exploit business opportunities, including its vast natural resources and sources of cheap labour. Today, Myanmar migrant workers make up a significant portion of Thailand’s 2.8 million migrant workers.

The current era has been defined by the cultivation of personal relationships between military leaders as well as the resumption of business ties. It was unsurprising that Prayut chose Myanmar as the first foreign country to visit following his own seizure of power in May 2014. In his meeting with then-President U Thein Sein, Prayut expressed his support and respect for Myanmar’s national sovereignty – and vowed not to allow any minority group to undermine that sovereignty from Thai soil. 

Prayut also presented an eager face when he met Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who visited Bangkok in May 2016 at the invitation of the Thai military, pledging to work closely on security and border development related issues. Thailand is a major trading partner to Myanmar, second only to China since 2018, according to the World Bank. Thai companies frequently do business with military-owned conglomerates such as Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEHL). 

But the February 1 coup d’etat is likely to significantly dent trade between the two countries, as well as restrict the flow of labour across borders. 

Pro-democracy protesters hold a Myanmar flag as they take part in a demonstration marching toward the residence of Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha in Bangkok on February 28. Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP

The August 2017 Tatmadaw offensive against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state provides further clues into Thai-Tatmadaw bilateral relations. 

While the crackdown by the military sent hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into neighbouring Bangladesh, Thai junta leaders went noticeably quiet and failed to condemn the atrocities the former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein labelled a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Instead, the Thai junta awarded Senior General Min Aung Hlaing a royal decoration a few months later in February 2018, the Knight Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, for his support of the Thai military

When Min Aung Hlaing visited Prayut and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan in 2017, Prawit carefully avoided the use of the word Rohingya, referring to the repressed minority group as “Bengalis”, at the request of the Myanmar government. The request cast a pall over human rights between the borders of the two countries. It meant that while Myanmar refused to accept the Rohingya as citizens, it also meant complete indifference from the Thai junta, who were more worried about the possibility of “boat people” arriving – sadly not the deplorable conditions that drove them to flee.

At the time, Prayut noted that Thailand would not “intervene in their domestic affairs”. After meeting with Min Aung Hlaing in August 2017, the Thai junta, through its Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), declared their intentions to force Rohingya seeking to escape atrocities in Rakhine state to move on to Malaysia and Indonesia, also denying them access to vital refugee protection.

Thailand could learn something from the cancelled Indonesian trip to Myanmar, which was called off after outrage that it was seen to be advocating on behalf of ASEAN to hold new, illegitimate elections

As both Thailand and Myanmar hunker down into similar forms of authoritarian behaviour, their political fortunes seem linked together. The convergence speaks volumes, particularly in light of the blueprint the Thai junta unwittingly left the Tatmadaw – from the political exploitation of a weakened judiciary, rigged elections, draconian laws designed to intimidate political opposition, and more.  

In the past, the Tatmadaw have spoken of a “discipline-flourishing democracy” or a democracy guided completely by the military. Thailand’s military leaders of both the past and the present have spoken about a “Thai-style” variety of democracy, a vague concept that seeks to weed out those deemed unfit or unworthy to participate. These alignments are both consistent with regimes where the status quo military leadership holds extra-constitutional forms of power. In both cases, part of this transformation has already come to pass, with Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution and Thailand’s 2017 Constitution surrendering significant shares of power to their respective militaries. 

The cozy relationship with the Tatmadaw is not without risk. In the face of overwhelming opposition to a politically unpopular coup, both domestically and internationally, the danger is that Thailand provides legitimacy to a regime that has only just begun to punish opposition and dissent with bouts of lethal violence. That makes hosting or brokering talks, even with favourable intentions by Indonesia, extremely perilous. Thailand could learn something from the cancelled Indonesian trip to Myanmar, which was called off after outrage that it was seen to be advocating on behalf of ASEAN to hold new, illegitimate elections. 

The outrage of the people of Myanmar – or Thailand – is not something to scuffle with. As mentioned earlier, migrant workers represent a significant portion of the Thai labour supply and the mobilisation of these workers could present Prayut with another front of political opposition. While estimates suggest that over a million migrant workers from Myanmar are living in Thailand, many believe that number is much higher. Thai-Myanmar relations can also run afoul by the dismal stature the Thai regime represents in the eyes of the people of Myanmar. 

For now, despite the evidence that suggests that the coup in Myanmar is ultimately bad for bilateral trade and potentially opens up another anti-Prayut front in Thailand, the Thai government maintains the ASEAN line – non-interference in the foreign and internal affairs of Myanmar, as stipulated under the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. 

The implications of the Thai regime’s tacit support for the Tatmadaw have yet to be fully understood. But the consequences in the short-term are likely to remain minimal, as other governments in the region such as India and Japan have echoed a similar tone – hoping not to isolate Myanmar, while maintaining cordial political and economic relations in order to continue strategic interests. 

The more things change in Myanmar, to Prayut and company over the border in Thailand, the more they stay the same.

Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, as well as a regular columnist for the Globe.

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