In Person

‘I Don’t Think the West Understands Myanmar’ 

By The Irrawaddy 23 October 2018

How would you describe the Thai-Myanmar relationship at the moment?

Thai-Myanmar relations at the moment are excellent. The relationship hasn’t been this strong at any time since 1962. I am very happy because it has taken a long, long time for the two countries, which were bitter enemies for the past four centuries or more, to become really trusted friends. I think the two countries have a natural strategic partnership.

One of the biggest challenges that the countries have joined hands to settle is the issue of migrant workers from Myanmar. I think over the past three or four years, Myanmar migrant workers’ living and working conditions in Thailand have improved. More than 2.3 million have been registered and given protection by the Thai government. I think the government will try to further improve their overall condition, because Thailand needs these workers to maintain economic growth amid a labor shortage. Migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and even Vietnam would like to do the same, though they have fewer workers here [in Thailand].

Beyond the issue of migrant workers, Thailand and Myanmar are cooperating in lots of areas, especially capacity building and human resource development. For example Thailand has been the leading ASEAN member helping Myanmar to restore peace and stability in Rakhine State. Thailand is helping with education, public health and community-building efforts because it has a lot of experience with such projects. Of late, Myanmar has also become interested in the “sufficiency” economic model that Thailand has been practicing for decades. It could easily be applied to rural areas in Myanmar. These activities were conducted without scrutiny from the media. So there are lots of activities going on. Thailand and Myanmar share a porous, 2,400-km-long border. [It has] not yet been [fully] demarcated, but there is no war between the countries. Indeed, they have decided to postpone this issue and focus on economic development. That tells you that the two governments value the friendship and want to move ahead with cooperation in other areas and leave the demarcation for later.

Why has there been such a dramatic change in the relationship? Is it because of Myanmar’s opening up in 2010, or is it due to improved ties between the two militaries?

I think both reasons are valid. Relations between Thailand and Myanmar in the past were confined to military-to-military ties. They were not real relations. It was a dysfunctional cooperation without the involvement of civilian governments. It was not a good transaction at all. In the past, Thailand changed leadership and governments quite often. Therefore, there has not been any consistency except for the military-to-military ties. However, now that Myanmar has opened up and democratized, it has allowed Thailand and the international community to interact with Naypyitaw in diplomatic and holistic ways. The ties have transformed; they are not transactional, as in the past. They have been normalized. Thailand’s military regime has pursued a clear policy toward neighboring countries, trying to loop them into a broader economic integration using various frameworks. That helps explain why Thailand has been working hard to improve relations. Thailand and Myanmar are two major Buddhist members of ASEAN. Their close relations and cooperation are crucial for the unity of ASEAN and stability in mainland Southeast Asia. Their relationship is the foundation of stability in the region. 

Thailand is under a military regime. There has been a lot of talk about how much the two sides appreciate, learn from and copy each other. Since he became the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has made 10 or 11 visits to Thailand. He has made many overseas trips, to the West as well as to ASEAN countries, but Thailand has been his most frequent destination. Do you think the two countries have learned a lot from each other?

Definitely. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing follows political and economic developments in Thailand closely. He has learned a lot from Thailand’s experience in handling various crises. One of the most important takeaways for him is that you have to engage foreign countries; you cannot run away. Whether you like it or not, you have to face your problems and discuss them with the international community. If need be, you can ask for assistance. That is exactly what Thailand has done in the past, allowing it to settle its differences with foreign countries and supporters. Can you imagine that 30 years ago, we had over 3 million refugees from Cambodia on our eastern border? Everybody attacked and criticized Thailand over its refugee policy. But in the end, everybody appreciated Thailand and helped to repatriate all the refugees. Why? It was for a simple reason—Thailand continued to engage the international community despite criticism and prejudices. We need to engage and talk to the international community. You know, Westerners, the international community and NGOs want information, and they also want to know what your policy is, what you intend to do. I think Thailand has been very good in explaining its policy and I think Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has learned from that.

And the second lesson is that if you cannot handle a situation yourself, you need help from friends; you need to discuss it and ask for help. Do not be shy, because countries in the region share similar challenges and destinies. Take Indonesia, for example. Thailand and other ASEAN members are facing similar issues. In fact, during Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Thailand last year, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit [Wongsuwon] told him about Thailand’s past experiences handling the Cambodian refugees. He said Thailand trusted ASEAN and subsequently, ASEAN helped Thailand. Another example was in Indonesia. Jakarta had a problem with East Timor. It asked Thailand for help because Indonesia wanted ASEAN peacekeepers, not Western peacekeepers. So, Thailand helped to convince the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore to help with their peacekeepers. And I think it is time that Myanmar asked for help, more help from ASEAN on the Rohingya, because ASEAN can help in all kinds of ways. So far, Myanmar is still reluctant, thinking that this is an internal issue that it should handle alone. But ASEAN will not be able to help if Myanmar does not discuss it or ask for help. Myanmar must learn from Cyclone Nargis that international assistance is pivotal.

Does this mean that ASEAN’s non-interference policy has been abandoned? Because when Myanmar was a closed country, we continually heard about the non-interference policy, and that Myanmar handled its internal affairs without interference. Has this changed?

No, no. The non-interference policy remains. If Myanmar approaches ASEAN and asks for assistance, it is not considered interference in internal affairs, just like in the case of East Timor. Therefore, what Myanmar needs to do is to be more open and have more confidence in its ASEAN counterparts. Because Myanmar has been living in isolation for too long, the government is used to going it alone. But Myanmar needs ASEAN’s help. And it needs it now. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Myanmar needs ASEAN and ASEAN can help. ASEAN seldom disappoints its members.

Have both the Myanmar government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military led by Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing openly asked ASEAN for help with the Rakhine issue?

I don’t think they have reached that level. I think there is a better understanding between ASEAN and Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis now. But if you compare it with the previous government, I must say that the government of [former President] U Thein Sein had a much better policy toward ASEAN than the current government. Thein Sein engaged ASEAN and has been very supportive and he knows that ASEAN can help Myanmar. And this is very important. He was very enthusiastic and pro-ASEAN. He learned valuable lessons from the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

There have long been rumors about the possibility of a coup d’etat in Myanmar. The Myanmar and Thai militaries are now best friends and collaborate, with lots of exchange going on. What are your thoughts?

Well, Thailand will support Myanmar no matter what the circumstances. During the most difficult times, I remember in 1988, [Thai] General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was really the lone supporter of Myanmar when the government came out and cracked down on the students. I hope that a coup-d’etat won’t happen in Myanmar, because you do not have that kind of history, as in Thailand. [Former Myanmar strongman] General Ne Win staged a coup in 1962 and its implications lasted for over six decades. Thailand, however, has gone through 18 coups without the kind of long-lasting implications as in Myanmar. Please—no coup in Myanmar.

Myanmar people go to Thailand and they are surprised to see that the country is still being run by a military government after four years. But it’s very different from what they have experienced in their own country.

This is very interesting. In Thailand, you have to admit that [the military] has a lot of experience with coups. So we in general got used to coup-making and its aftermath. But [the most recent] coup was different. It was brought about by a series of political disagreements and polarization. The military government came to power on the promise that it would bring about political reform and also try to raise standards of living and heal the political rifts. And they have tried. The first year it did not succeed. The second year it continued and did not succeed. The third year yielded limited results with some changes in development and societal policies.

With the military in charge, certain aspects of life are obviously tougher. Certain media are under government pressure not to write too much—this can anger the government, that’s all. In Thailand, the government does not arrest journalists for being critical or publishing confidential documents. They issue warnings. The biggest complaint has been the violation of human rights. I think Thai culture is quite accommodating to any new circumstance or environment. In the past four years, the military leaders have used Article 44 to ensure that policies get implemented, especially those involving influential people.

How can the two countries learn from each other? In particular, what can Myanmar’s National League for Democracy-led government as well as its military learn from Thailand?

Thailand can offer some good lessons, particularly on interfaith dialogue and community building. Of course, Thailand has its own problems [with a Malay-Muslim separatist insurgency] in the south. In general, people of different faiths should be able to live together. Thailand’s lessons in handling its ethnic groups could provide some valuable lessons.

The second area is in the field of press freedom. I think Myanmar learned a lot during the U Thein Sein years. Thailand sent many media experts, especially in broadcasting, and tried to help draft a public broadcasting law. But [the current Myanmar] government has not yet taken any action—it’s pretty sad really. The previous government learned from Indonesia, Thailand and developed countries; it is the learning process that counts.

What is the significance of the fact that Myanmar experienced more than a century of colonial rule, and took many lessons from this? Thailand was never colonized and had a more flexible attitude in terms of dealing with colonial powers in the 1930s, with the French, the British and the US. Is this something that we should handle better?

Each country has its own rules for engaging and handling foreign countries as well as foreign pressure. Myanmar has a particular way of handling great powers and neighboring countries. Indeed, we can learn from each other. Thailand’s experience with great powers and neighboring countries has been rather unique. Thailand has never been colonized so our attitude to foreigners is less hostile. We are friendly towards foreigners. That helps explain why more than 35 million tourists have visited Thailand in each of the past three years [in 2016, 2017, and projected for 2018]. Thais are not afraid to engage foreigners, whether they are Russian, Chinese or American. That is why Thailand seeks friendship with all. We don’t have any hang-ups with [former] colonial powers, even though their behavior in the past was disgusting. If you are good to Thailand, the Thais will be good to you. In some cases, they will try to do even more and offer more. Indeed, that is the easiest way to approach Thailand. Don’t make Thai people mad. If you make them mad, they can be nasty. If you make them happy, they will respond in kind. I think that is the basic template. These are the basic tenets of Thai diplomacy. That is why sometimes foreign countries don’t trust Thailand very much because they think Thailand changes like bamboo bending in the wind.

Thailand has learned from past experience that you can only say something that you believe truly. Otherwise, you will be accused of lying. Thais have diverse opinions [and Thailand is home to] a variety of NGOs, grassroots groups and all forms of stakeholders. It’s not easy. Everybody has a strong opinion. You have to remember, Thailand is not a country of one-party rule like Singapore, in which the party says something and the people follow. Thailand is not like Vietnam under the Communist Party. Thailand is not like Cambodia. Thailand has a very revered monarchy. Thailand has its military. Thailand has a strong bureaucracy. Thailand has uncompromising political parties. So, whenever you want to implement a national policy, it is very difficult to carry it out. That’s why no one will ever commit to or say anything ahead of time. They leave some room for interpretation. So you have to listen carefully to what Thais say and interpret it for yourself. Foreigners often say that Thais are ambivalent.

Regarding the Rohingya issue, what are your views on the UN’s damning report, calls for the International Criminal Court to prosecute Myanmar’s military leaders, and the criticism of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for not speaking out more? We see Thailand as having much more leverage in terms of dealing with the West, in terms of balancing powers, even though it is not a major power. But it has more potential, more economic power and political leverage in dealing with superpowers like China, the US and Russia. In particular, under the Prayuth administration, we have seen Thailand move closer to China and away from the US for a brief period, before returning to a more balanced position. Prayuth was then invited to the White House. What is Myanmar missing?

It is interesting that you say that. You know in our relations with foreign countries, Thailand wants to be friends with everybody, with every country. But after the coup in 2014, the US decided to punish Thailand harshly. According to US law, Washington must cut off aid, and military training and exchanges. But some of the law-enforcement programs and humanitarian projects are still running. The region’s largest military exercise, known as Cobra Gold, has continued without interruption.

So in the absence of the US, Thailand continues its relations with China, India and Japan. In Japan’s case, it was very interesting. After two months of very tough policy towards Thailand, similar to the US, Japan suddenly changed its position to re-establish contact with Thailand. Tokyo realized [soon after the 2014 military coup] that military rule would last longer than usual. Just imagine: After four years, if Japan had maintained the same position as Washington, it would have lost everything it had nurtured in the past 70 years with Thailand. So Thailand continues its ties with the rest of the world, except for the US and the EU.

It is only in the past year-and-a-half that the US and the EU have realized that they have been too harsh with Thailand. Of course, for them it is unacceptable that Thailand, being one of the democratic models [in the region] in the early 1990s, was still experiencing coups d’etat after so many years of democratization. I think in the future making coups will be more difficult. People won’t tolerate it. At the moment, Thailand has a 20-year national strategy. I think every new government that comes in will have to follow and implement it. These strategies could be changed in Parliament. This is something new. A lot of people don’t like it because the government was not elected. So after Thailand holds an election in February, the country will return to normal and its true democratic self will emerge again. I think it will be interesting to watch.

Do you think the election is going to happen next year?

It will definitely happen in February, because it is important. On the previous four occasions, the government has postponed and procrastinated due to technical problems. Now I think the government has confidence. The government has to make sure that the upcoming election is peaceful and provides the stability that everybody needs. You don’t want political polarization or conflicts or street protests again. What Thailand needs most is the continuity of stability and democratization.

Do you think the West understands Myanmar?

No, I don’t think the West understands Myanmar as Myanmar people understand themselves. Just like the Thais. I think in the West, when they look at Thailand or Myanmar, they see two things: The first is the normal stereotyped view; and the second is the country as they think it ought to be. For example, in the case of Myanmar, the West would like to see Myanmar become a democracy under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—at one time the world’s most famous political icon. In reality, that is not happening.

Just like Thailand back in the late 1980s, when it had the world’s highest economic growth rate of nearly 13 percent. Everybody was saying Thailand was a good example of a developing country, adopting Western-style democracy with the most liberal democratic values. Our press is so free. Now we have been through that experience and realized that this kind of system was not sustainable, as other societal factors still lagged behind. So Thailand’s democracy fell back. Now we are trying to build it up again with a better foundation. So we’ll wait and see

The local press in Myanmar described a very different narrative [than the West did] after terrorists launched attacks in northern Rakhine. They didn’t oversimplify the issues and nuances in northern Rakhine State. But many citizens despise the Western press coverage and were outraged. Many were also disappointed with the Ministry of Information, which they saw as doing nothing to provide news, or any counter-narrative, while also denying reporters access to the area.

For me this is the outcome of the failure of the Myanmar government to provide quick information, access to information—and complete information. I think the country that Myanmar should learn from is Singapore. Whenever Singapore faces any problem, whether it’s about the quarrels within the Lee family or the sour relationship with China, the government tries to supply as much information as possible and in a very timely manner to the local press. The Singapore press is a bulwark against the West’s stereotyping and narratives. In the case of Thailand as well as Myanmar, the narratives shaped by the international press grabbed the headlines.

In the case of the Rohingya, there are two failures. First of all, the government failed to provide adequate information at the right time. It was pivotal to provide information to the local media at the earliest possible time. Second, there is no access to the conflict areas for local media. That was the worst part. The government does not trust local reporters. The duty of the government is to make sure they provide enough and sufficient information as the situation continues to develop. If local journalists have better access early, it will help to improve two conditions. First, it would help to get information out through eyewitness accounts. Their reports could halt unsubstantiated or fake news circulating on social media. So these reports with updates will serve as… monitoring. You know we journalists in the area are witnessing a lot of things. It keeps violence or conflict from happening when there are a lot of eyewitnesses. There are a lot of things happening that nobody sees, so with the advent of social media, both sides can put out anything, can talk about anything. Of course some of it is real and some of it is not real.

What is your view of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who refuses to hold any press conferences or give interviews to local journalists? She only talks to selected foreign journalists and reporters. Secondly, what’s your view of Myanmar’s Ministry of Information? 

The first thing is, she has the wrong idea about local media. She does not trust local media, because she does not trust the local media’s ability to report her opinion or her views accurately. She feels that giving interviews to the BBC and other Western journalists is better because they are more professional. I think local journalists can also do a good job, given the opportunity. Just talk to them and find out which journalists are good, and which are not professional.

After all, the media is a product of the country and its political system and culture. The leaders today failed to reflect the reality in Rakhine State. That’s why Naypyitaw does not have any credibility at all. So if the government had been more open in earlier days, I don’t think the situation would have come this far. Local journalists must be given the opportunity to do the job.

The worst thing about Rakhine is that nobody has reported it accurately. Now we have to try to figure out what went on, and interview refugees, interview whoever took part and interview all kinds of people, but without real eyewitnesses; the role that should have been played by journalists at the time.

I think the Ministry of Information lacks a communication strategy. They are also scared of the government, because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself does not speak much.

Everybody should have access to leaders so that the leaders can communicate with the people, and the Ministry of Information should provide the necessary information and also access to key people in the government. But the ministry has not yet done so. And this is very sad. I think the ministry has to be more active, more engaged. They do understand the situation and I think they have problems trusting local journalists. One of the things missing is mutual trust between media and the government. If you look at Thailand, there is a certain level of trust, even though the Thai prime minister criticizes the media all the time. But he is still talking to the media.

Kavi Chongkittavorn was editor-in-chief of the Myanmar Times from February to December 2017. He was a journalist with the Bangkok-based English-language daily The Nation from 1984-2013. From 1994-95, he served as a special assistant to the ASEAN secretary general based in Jakarta. He is now a columnist for the Bangkok Post. His expertise is in ASEAN affairs, US foreign policy toward Southeast Asia and regional security issues.