Guest Column

Conflict Lessons Learned for Myanmar from Thailand

By Aung Naing Oo 28 May 2014

As a young democracy that has just emerged from decades of isolation and civil strife, there is much to learn for Myanmar, especially from neighboring Thailand. It may not have much in common with Myanmar except that we are Buddhist majority nations, that we all have experienced disparate forms of military rule and experimented with democracy over the past several decades.

But there are certain aspects that we in Myanmar should pay attention to, such as the idea of compromise and a nation’s obsession with one man and how these things can go to the extreme, turning everything upside down. These are issues we have grappled with here in Myanmar. And they are taking Thailand down.

While exiled in Thailand for over a decade, I witnessed two military coups—in 1992 and 2006—along with multifarious rumors of imminent putsches whenever there were large scale protests against the incumbents. The 1992 coup was bloody and the 2006 coup was almost bloodless. But, until the last coup, I had always thought the Thais were really good at compromises. I thought they had used compromise to avoid going to the extremes.

My views are simple and despite a decade in Thailand I do not know Thai politics more than what I read in the English-language newspapers and conversations with Thai experts.

Military coups in Thailand I witnessed were short-lived compared to Myanmar’s. They did not attempt the wholesale alteration of Thai society or political system. A general overthrew another general in power or the incumbent civilian prime minister and installed himself as head of the government. He would write a new constitution and a new election would be held in a short time. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy would remain largely intact. Such was the Thailand’s see-saw democratic at play, alternated by reintroduction of democracy and military regimes.

Then along came Thaksin. We were envious of his achievements and progress made in democracy in such a short time. We thought we could never catch up with Thailand.

But then he stumbled, colliding head on with the most powerful institutions in Thailand. Still I thought compromise was possible when the military took over in 2006, while Thaksin was out of the country. But the crunch time came when the Administrative Court sentenced him to two years imprisonment in absentia. From my standpoint, it was the last straw for Thailand. It was going down; it had totally lost the spirit of compromise.

Compromise would not have solved Thailand’s deep divide. But it would have avoided deadly clashes and continuing misery brought about by prolonged tit-for-tat color protests. It could have found a way forward or an alternative to settle the problems it faced.

Instead Thailand’s color conflict has deepened the wounds on all sides and adversely affected the economy.  The country’s obsession with one man—Thaksin—is something I cannot fathom. But it is the case in point that makes Thailand’s compromise impossible.

At a recent rally prior to “Bangkok Shutdown” protest, the opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban told the crowd, “I want to announce on this important night that the masses will not accept any proposals or negotiations. In this fight, defeat is defeat and victory is victory. There is no tie. There’s no win-win. There’s only win on one side.”

It says it all—there will be no compromise. Plain and simple. Emotions are high and the protesters are prepared to go all the way. We may see another prolonged “Bangkok Airport Shutdown.” I cannot imagine what negative impact it will have on the conflict itself, economy and all other aspects of Thai life. It can get only worse.

Is it too late for compromise? I do not know. But I know a win for the opposition will not be a win; a win for the government will not be a win. A win for one side will be a lose-lose situation for all. A win for the opposition means the red shirts will come back with bitter vengeance—even stronger. And a victory for the government is a recipe for protests to remain defiant. It will drag in those who are not openly against the government now. Worse still, the conflict has invited the military to step in. Is it time for the 19th successful military coup? Bloodletting may be on the way.

There had been warning signs all along. In exile, we were obsessed with our own politics and did not pay much attention to Thailand’s political woes. We did not listen to the warnings of the Thai professors at Chiang Mai University, where I still teach at an international program. They told us that Myanmar would be easier to change because Thailand’s social and political divides were more deep-rooted than those of Myanmar. They said that it would be hard for Thailand to get out of vicious circles of coups. They may be right after all.

The lessons in all this for Myanmar are plain for all to see. The reintroduction of democracy and the on-going peace talks with armed ethnic groups have somehow provided the outlet for possible compromise. But we still have our own obsessions. And if Thailand’s woes are not something we can take lessons from, then I do not know what are. And for whatever reason, we must not let our guards down.

Aung Naing Oo is an associate director of the Peace Dialogue Program at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC). The views expressed here are his own and not those of the MPC.