A Thai Junta Vs a Burmese Junta—Spot the Differences

When the Thai military staged a coup and replaced a democratically elected government last month, ordinary people in Burma and Burmese working in Thailand reacted with a sense of bemusement.

The neighbors had traded places: the former military-run pariah state is being embraced by the West for its democratic transition, while a long-standing United States ally had come under the boot of the Thai army, which has come in for strong international criticism.

Soon, a sense of irony took over among the Burmese, leading to jokes on social media.

When the Thai junta named itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)—conjuring up memories of Burma’s former State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—and it began an Orwellian-style “happiness campaign” with free dance shows, meals and haircuts, the Burmese were struck with a mix of hilarity and disbelief.

Thailand was a stable nation and one of the strongest democratic and free countries in Southeast Asia. The kingdom has relatively free press, influential civil society groups and is actively engaged with Western nations and its Asian neighbors. And of course, it is Asia’s most popular international tourist destination.

After the initial reactions among the Burmese wore off, however, concerns over the Thai coup grew. No one wants to see Thailand’s democracy fail, while the country’s sinks into political and economic stagnation.

Until recently, Burmese politicians and activist fleeing repression in their country sought refuge in Thailand and enjoyed its democratic space and respect for human rights; from Thailand they staged media and political campaign against military rule in Burma.

Ethnic armies were based along the Thai-Burma border and set up offices and businesses there, while buying arms from the black market in Thailand to fight their insurgency against Burma’s military-run government.

Some recent Thai media suggested that Thailand’s populist, deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra might set up a democratic movement in exile in neighboring Cambodia.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Some Burmese colleagues of mine, who spent many years in exile in Thailand for their democratic activism, could not help joking and said the movement would need to find some generous sponsors, preferably Western powers. In jest, they said the Thai opposition now needs leaders who, like Aung San Suu Kyi or U Win Tin, would be able to put up with many years of detention, house arrest or torture.

There is great unease, nonetheless, among Burmese democracy and human rights activists over the Thai coup: when Thailand, after all its past democratic success, can regress to military rule, how long will Burma’s road to genuine democracy be?

Jimmy, a leader of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society who spent many years behind bars as a political prisoner said, “Thailand is a leading country in Southeast Asia. I don’t want a coup in Thailand as it is a model for other Asean countries.

“[The coup] shows how important national reconciliation is. If this does not succeed, the army will always be involved in Thai politics,” he said, underlining the need for reconciliation in Burma.

Jimmy added that President Thein Sein, who has publicly pledged to lead Burma through a transition to democracy, should respond. “Thein Sein is trumpeting Burma as heading towards democracy—he can’t remain silent.”

The latter is, however, exactly what Burma’s reformist government appears to have done.

In another ironic twist, the first visit by Thai junta foreign affairs officials was to Burma, of all places, to explain the coup to the former military men that still run the country. Thai officials asked Burma, in its role as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), to help tell the outside world “the truth” about the Thai coup.

In keeping with Asean’s long-standing policy of non-interference in domestic affairs (and not embarrassing) of its members, Burma’s government refrained from making critical comments about the Thai coup.

Surprisingly, Hla Swe, a former junta colonel and now a lawmaker from Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, was more critical and said, “A coup is not good.”

The Burmese are also keenly aware of the differences between military rule in Thailand and the former military regime and current government in their country.

The Thai army has carried out more than a dozen coups in past decades, but always relinquished power to a civilian government after a number of years. The Thai military also retains respect among large swathes of the Thai people.

Nan Khin Htwe Myint, a politician with the National League for Democracy (NLD), said, “In Thailand, once the country’s situation returns to normal, the army gives power back to the people. In Burma, it’s been different.”

The Burma Army staged two coups, one in 1962 and one in 1988, and ruled the country for more than half a century. The military is hated and mocked by most people in Burma after the generals brutally suppressed dissent and ran the economy of the resource-rich country into the ground.

Today, many Burmese still feel that the country is under control of military men and ex-generals in the government and Parliament—in spite of the “sweeping reforms” celebrated by Western governments. The despised military-drafted Constitution gives the army direct control over a quarter of Parliament and other controls over government.

The Burmese continue to loathe the retired and active generals, and their cronies, who control most assets in Burma and have positioned themselves to reap the benefits of the economic boom that was kick-started by the democratic transition.

We are now stuck with the Burma Army’s “disciplined democracy”—the generals simply decided to take off their uniforms in order to continue to run the country, while mass murderers and former coup makers enjoy impunity and live in lavish compounds.

Let’s hope that the Thai army will soon return to its barracks, and that Burma’s military will pick up on the idea and leave Burmese politics once and for all.

6 Responses to A Thai Junta Vs a Burmese Junta—Spot the Differences

  1. A well written article. Congratulations, Aung Zaw!
    U Thein Sein’s government is still not clean and his governance not good at all. And he apparently threatens the country with an about-turn, not agreeing with the people’s aspirations for complete reform, citing dangers of over zealous demands for that.

  2. Burma’s ethnic problems are more serious than in Thailand but the Burmese generals and ethnic war-lords learned a lot from the Thai upper-class oligarchy how to make dirty money to be sent to the squeaky clean money-laundromats in Singapore.

  3. Maung Lu Aye ( Law ) R.A.S.U 1976

    We had a Great Debt upon Thai Grassroot Civilians,Thai University Students, Of Course Your Excellency Thai King Bumibol,When Burma Uprising failed in 1988 and a lot of Burmese Students, Civilians fled refuge in Thailand. But Not the Thai Authorities or Thai Military.Ex-General Chavalit Yong Chai Yuk negotiated with SLORC and implemented Students repartriation,a lot of Students disappear to the Prisons, Nobody know what happen.
    Burma Military & Thai Military are almost the Same,Except Thai Military honor the King and they do not want to lose their Reputation. Besides, No Coup is Excellent or Hardly Bloodless.Burma had at least 1962 Coup & 1988 Coup and hundred thousand of Unarmed Students,Civilians were murdered brutally.These two Coup were masterminded by late Ne Win.
    Of course,Thai Junta learned a lot of lessons from Burma Junta as well as Thai University Students learned Democratic Values from Burmese Students.
    Burmese Generals Never Ever learned,and Death -Fear to lose their Power.They are Supremacists/Victimizers, whenever they have chance,they oppress the People.
    Every People in Burma are wondering the Last days of their Last Breath of the Burma Generals.Nobody live forever.Mortal Generals could not take any Properties to their Graves.

  4. I wonder!

    How many Generals are there in

    The Burmese Army “MUSLIM!”

    The most trusted Thai General Buniamun

    by The King Of Thailand

    is “MUSLIM!”

  5. the tatmadaw is unable to be a professional fighting force with military leaders unable to treat all civilians within the border as human beings.

    the tatmadaw’s record speaks for itself; since independence, the tatmadaw is unable to bring a just and lasting peace between the different ethnic people of the country.

    should the civilians be naïve to believe that the tatmadaw perpetuates the conflict between the ethnic people of the country so that the tatmadaw can stay in power for ever?

    since independence , what has the tatmadaw built, that would make any soldier or any civilian proud of the tatmadaw?

    is the tatmadaw so scared of the civilians that they need a 25% guaranteed place in the parliament?

    Basically, the once proud Tatmadaw is lead by Generals with Raw Human Greed in their hearts.

  6. Excellent article, daring and factual.

    No need to be upset with Tin Aye. He spoke the truth. All the ethnic battles, religious flare up are easy to stir up and magnify to trigger a coup. He spoke the truth. U Shwe Mann at one time also hinted.

    The only problem is the national and international setting are different.

    Like an allergic response to infection in the airway, a military coup before, during and after the election period could end up very differently.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available. Comments with external links in the body text will be deleted by moderators.