Guest Column

Can ‘Friendly Persuasion’ Bring an End to Myanmar’s Deadly Stalemate?

By THEPCHAI YONG 13 March 2021

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has spoken – though not as forcefully as many might have wanted to see. But optimists in the regional grouping believe its message was clear enough to sink in with the military junta in Naypyidaw.

However, the fact that Myanmar security forces still continue to use deadly force to quell pro-democracy demonstrators in many parts of the country certainly defies any optimistic view of the situation.

Yet, as far as people in the Thai Foreign Ministry are concerned, there is still a glimmer of hope that Myanmar could still step back from the brink of total anarchy.   According to their reading, the message from ASEAN and statements from some of the more outspoken ASEAN leaders are unmistakable and the military-appointed foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin has been made to understand full well what the regional grouping and the world want to see happen in Myanmar — an end to violence and a release of detained politicians. A chairman’s statement issued at the March-2 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting also expressed the grouping’s readiness to assist in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.

But would ASEAN just sit and watch how the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, will respond? Certainly not, at least as far as Thailand is concerned.  For Thailand, the stake is too high to allow the current crisis in Myanmar to escalate.

Thailand and Myanmar share a common border stretching over 2,400 kilometers. Dozens of armed ethnic groups on the Myanmar side of the border have always been a security concern for Thailand while there is always a strong potential of a major influx of Myanmar people into Thailand in the event of full-blown violent conflicts.

Among the ASEAN countries, Indonesia might have seemed most eager in playing a mediating role on the outset of the crisis. However, its Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s attempted shuttle diplomacy which culminated in her trilateral meeting with Myanmar’s Wunna Maung Lwin and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai at Don Muang international airport on February 24 failed to produce any tangible result. Her earlier request to fly to Naypyidaw was also down.   Meanwhile, leaders of Singapore and Malaysia have also been forceful and critical in their public statements on the violence in Myanmar.​

Comparatively speaking, Thailand might have appeared more restrained in its formal reaction to the unfolding crisis in its immediate neighbor. In one of his few comments on the violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in Myanmar last week, Don stressed the importance of “peace, stability and security in the region.” He also expressed “Thailand’s readiness, as a close neighbor and a fellow ASEAN member, to assist Myanmar in the pursuance of peaceful resolution for the benefit and interest of Myanmar people.”

“In doing so, trust is of vital importance,” he said.

And the Thai foreign minister has good reason to believe that Thailand has gained enough trust with Myanmar to play a mediating role in resolving the crisis. But don’t expect a repeat of the kind of Retno’s shuttle diplomacy that we have witnessed.

Thai officials would love to point out that fact that Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing wrote to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to seek advice on democratic transition and the Thai leader’s subsequent personal meeting with Wunna Maung Lwin are a good indication of the level of trust between the two leaders.

And they believe that trust between the two countries didn’t just come overnight.  Thailand and Myanmar have been engaged in years of dialogue and negotiations over border affairs.  Of course, there were tense moments and contentious issues between them but throughout all those years both sides were always seen as being sincere toward each other.  And what should not be ignored is that there has been a good rapport between Foreign Minister Don and his Myanmar counterpart dating back to their days as ambassadors.

In their meeting in Bangkok and subsequent conversations, Don reportedly impressed upon his Myanmar counterpart the need for an immediate end to the violent suppression of the pro-democracy protests.  Continued violence would only lead to more casualties, worsen the economy, and isolate the country – not to mention the potential of the crisis escalating into an all-out civil war with ethnic groups joining the fray.

What Thailand has in mind is an atmosphere that is conducive to a mediation that would pave the way for Tatmadaw and the National League for Democracy to have a dialogue.  But that means the Myanmar military will first have to hold its fire and come up with some kind of a goodwill gesture.

“Someone needs to break the ice,” a senior official of the Thai Foreign Ministry said.

Suspending the use of lethal force against the demonstrators and rolling back some of the draconian executive orders would be a good start. Releasing less prominent detainees would also send a positive signal.  On the other hand, NLD and its supporters also need to be convinced that mediation is the only way out of the crisis.

While a sudden communication between top Tatmadaw and NLD leaders is something far-fetched, hopefully dialogue can start between lower-ranking representatives from both sides in a mediation process mutually agreed upon.

With daily street protests and mounting casualties, it may sound presumptuous to expect either side to agree to a dialogue at this juncture.  However, Thailand and ASEAN believe that sooner or later it should dawn on them that a peaceful solution will be the only way out of the crisis.

“NLD and the military should be able to walk together again on the path toward democracy as they once did,” said the official, referring to how the Tatmadaw and the NLD managed to bury their hatchet that led to the first democratically-held general election in 2015 that propelled Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party to power.

There is no question that the Tatmadaw is having an upper hand in the current confrontation but it is conscious that it will have to pay a high price if the situation gets out of hand. And Thailand believes that getting Min Aung Hlaing and his comrades in arms to take a step back requires not more pressure but more friendly persuasion.

That explains why Thailand – unlike some of its more vocal ASEAN colleagues — is taking a more cautious approach in dealing with the situation in Myanmar, avoiding rhetoric that would alienate the regime in Naypyidaw. Prime Minister Prayut has made known his desire to see peace and democracy return to Myanmar and for Thailand to engage with the new regime to help with the process.

“It’s important that the Myanmar military must not be made to look weak or that it has to give in under pressure,” said a senior official familiar with Thai communication with Naypyidaw.

While officially Thailand is leaning on ASEAN’s consensus as mentioned in the chairman’s statement, it is also quietly pursuing its own path to try to get the two warring sides in Myanmar to avoid the worst-case scenario. Thailand now believes it has both the trust and an open line of communication with the new leadership in Naypyidaw, it sees an opportunity to play a role in defusing the potentially explosive crisis.

But it will be a role that may not generate many headlines. Officials at the Foreign Ministry are confident that given the very sensitive nature of the crisis at hand “quiet diplomacy” is a definitely a much more effective approach.   Thailand, however, will also try to engage “like-minded friends” in ASEAN to help in the diplomatic endeavor.

Citing an old Thai saying “pid thong lang phra” (pasting gold leaf sheets on the back of Buddha statue – not claiming credit or showing off), they insist that Thailand is at its best in diplomacy when it plays behind-the-scenes role.

Dr Piti Srisangnam of the ASEAN Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University agrees that Thailand is in a position to help resolve the crisis in Myanmar and endorses its quiet diplomacy approach.

“In delicate situation like this, you just don’t say everything in front of the cameras.  You need to pursue back-door diplomacy,” he told Thai PBS World.

This article was first published by Thai PBS World.

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