YANGON—Relations between the Myanmar and Thai militaries have reached a new high during the tenure of Myanmar’s military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, according to a report published by a Yangon-based independent policy institute.
“A Study on Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s International Trips” by the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies documents the Myanmar military chief’s trips overseas since he assumed the helm of the country’s armed forces in March 2011 from Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who had held the position since 1992.
According to the report, the current military chief, 62, has made a total of 46 trips to 23 countries, ranging from neighboring China and India to Asean countries to Russia and western European countries, including Italy, Germany and Austria.
In 2016, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing became the first Myanmar military chief to visit the EU in decades after he was invited to take part in a meeting with the European Union Military Committee (EUMC). The EU and other Western states believe that providing Myanmar’s army leaders with exposure to the West, where they can learn about the role and practices of professional armed forces, could have a positive influence.
In April 2017, during his week-long visit to Austria and Germany, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing toured arms companies and met with senior military and defense officials, even reportedly taking a spin in a DA-62 light aircraft in Austria. In Germany, he visited the GROB aircraft factory, taking particular interest in light aircraft for reconnaissance and training.
Despite the welcome he was given previously, the Myanmar military chief was accused by many in the international community of masterminding an “ethnic cleansing” campaign in 2017 following his troops’ clearance operations in northern Rakhine State, where nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after the army launched a counter-insurgency against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army following attacks on security posts. As a result, the EU and US considered imposing sanctions against Myanmar army officials.
“The military’s international relations have taken a backseat since August 2017, when the Rakhine crisis happened. Since then, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has made four trips to Thailand, China, Singapore and Nepal,” the report says.
After Thailand, China is the country, the military chief has visited most frequently.
He made his first goodwill visit to Myanmar’s northern neighbor in 2011, eight months after he became military chief. His fourth and most recent visit there was in November last year.
During his last visit to China, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing met Chinese President Xi Jinping and discussed the Rakhine issue among other topics. While there, he noted that China’s “One Belt One Road” policy might be beneficial for Myanmar.
The report says international pressure on the army over the Rakhine issue has forced it to be closer to China despite its previous attempts to strike a balance in its ties with Western countries and China.
“But the military seems to be trying not to have to totally rely on China. Despite the deterioration in relations with Western countries, it seems to be trying as best as it can to build strong ties with Asean, Russia, Japan and India to balance (its dependency on China).
“But it will be interesting for future international relations of the Myanmar military to what extent they can check the Chinese influence,” the report said.
Closer to home, ties have never been better with Thailand’s military.
Of Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s 46 foreign trips, Thailand is the country he has visited most — 10 times between 2012 to June 2018.
“Out of the 10, goodwill visits total four, attending meetings three, receiving titles two and attending defence and security shows one,” the report says.
Furthermore, the Myanmar military chief has twice been bestowed with Thailand’s highest honors: in 2013, he was awarded the Knight Grand Cross, Order of the Crown of Thailand “for promoting friendship between the two armed forces of Myanmar and Thailand,” according the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar at the time. Early this year, Thailand awarded him the “Knight Grand Cross First Class of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant” in Bangkok “to show the long and close relations” between the two countries, the Royal Thai Armed Forces said in a statement.
Apart from the awards, the Myanmar military chief has been “adopted” by Thailand’s former army chief, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, who reportedly knew Min Aung Hlaing’s late father—and the two have a “godfather-godson relationship.”
Plus, since 2013, Myanmar and Thailand have been taking it in turns to host annual high-level military meetings.