Recalculating Myanmar and Thailand

By David I. Steinberg 25 January 2014

WASHINGTON — Thailand’s future had long been considered both stable and optimistic. In spite of the numerous coups since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932 and the continuing unrest in the Muslim south, the social and hierarchical order of Thai society has until recently been maintained, and economic development has markedly progressed.

The profound current social and political upheaval that is now evident in that state, however—exemplified by the color-coded red and yellow factions and the military, coupled with the problems associated with the future of the palace—is now a cause for great concern. Whatever one’s definition of democracy, the political prospects of the Thai state are in question. The gaps between the people and the middle and upper classes, together with the military establishment and the palace, have sporadically spilled into the streets for almost a decade.

Myanmar, in contrast to Thailand, has long been on the minus side of any political or economic equation. For half a century, economic autarky and decline, authoritarian rule directly or indirectly by the military, minority insurrections, arbitrary and ineffective leadership, and international isolation have sapped whatever strength that multicultural society had on independence. Any bets on the future of either state would have been heavily, indeed overwhelmingly, weighted in favor of Thailand; the odds against Myanmar would have been astronomical. And so they were—until recently. Developments in both states have altered the odds.

Events in Thailand and Myanmar should cause cautious recalibration of such assessments. Such reconsiderations are not simply based on the major and widespread reforms carried out since 2011 by the government of President U Thein Sein. Although these positive changes grow ever less fragile as they are continuously implemented, a number of fundamental issues still need attention. Massive problems with the minorities and virulent anti-Muslim prejudice persist, and conceptions of democracy are still as rudimentary as they are among segments of the Thai elite. Myanmar’s democracy is still far from complete.

More basic are the social differences between the two states in spite of their shared Buddhist heritages. The majority Burman society is far more egalitarian. Observers may comment on the ubiquitous role of the military in Myanmar, compared to Thailand, and its past control over all avenues of social mobility in that society. This is a situation unique in the history of the region, and is reflected in cabinet appointments when both regimes were militarily controlled. In Myanmar about 95 percent of such positions were given to the military, whereas in Thailand only 25 percent went to military officers. But the essential difference between the two states lies in the social hierarchy. Thailand has been and remains essentially hierarchical and events of the past decade or so have illustrated that this structure has started to become politically undone.

Myanmar is quite different. The majority Burman areas of Myanmar had become perhaps the most mobile of societies in Southeast Asia in the post-colonial era. The reintroduction of the monarchy was never seriously considered on independence, and a hereditary royal elite was not perpetuated. Civilian and later military elites in Myanmar have sprung from the people, and social classes among Burmans became far more permeable and fluid than in Thailand. Since for some 50 years the private sector in Myanmar was abhorred under a socialist economy, keeping economic class distinctions in check was not until recently an issue, although it is likely to be exacerbated over time.

How Thailand will resolve its present crisis is unclear. And the future role of the monarchy is a matter of some question. Years ago it was possible to write that Myanmar would have been better off with a monarch who by his very presence and prestige could adjudicate political squabbling and rivalries—as when two disputatious Thai military leaders had to sit on the floor while His Majesty, in a chair, essentially told them to get their acts together. Those days are, perhaps, over in Thailand but that such a hierarchy has not existed in modern independent Myanmar may be a long-term advantage even if had been a shorter-term detriment to political stability. Although military-civilian mistrust in Myanmar is evident among Burmans, class cleavages are minimal in comparison with Thailand.

The reintegration of military and civilian strands of at least Burman society is far more likely over time and also more easily accomplished than the equivalent in Thailand. The Myanmar military was, so they say, once taught, “This uniform comes from the people. This gun comes from the people…” The present armed forces may have forgotten that dictum in their thrust for power, prestige, and privilege, resulting in their isolation from much of the populace, but they will be more easily be reconciled with the newly emerging civilian elite than in the more socially disparate Thailand, with its far more rigid class structure.

Myanmar must deal fairly and effectively with its minorities, integrating them into a nationhood without cultural assimilation. Then, the social future of Myanmar would indeed look bright. Observers would be wise to keep their minds open to the potentials of these two contiguous states. Too often we have taken the past as predicting the future.

David I Steinberg is Visiting Scholar at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University and Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University.

This article will also appear in the February 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy.