Guest Column

Intertwined Destinies in Thailand and Myanmar

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak 20 June 2013

One of the myriad fusses in official Thai history focuses on Siamese independence in December 1767 after its capital Ayutthaya had been sacked by converging Burmese armies seven months earlier. It is said that the reclamation of independence was attributable to King Taksin’s uncommon valor and extraordinary skill in military leadership, strategy and organization. While this story carries half of the truth, it is an anecdotal illustration of two ancient rival empires and deep-seated foes whose future directions are as entwined as their recent pasts have diverged. With the contrasting fate and fortune of ancient Burma and Siam, Myanmar and Thailand must now find ways to work and grow together for mutual benefit in the 21st century.

The King Taksin tale in Thai history conveniently omits the fact that Ava, Burma’s capital at the time, was being besieged by Chinese hordes who had invaded from the north. Instead of recalling his armies back immediately to defend the capital, King Hsinbyushin held off the Chinese while telling his commanding generals to finish the job in Siam. They did. The once-glorious Ayutthaya Kingdom ended then and there. The Burmese armies then managed to return and beat back the Chinese invaders, leaving only a small garrison at Ayutthaya that was subsequently routed by Taksin, whose kingship lasted just 15 years before the current Chakri Dynasty took over and reigned to this day.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at the faculty of political science, Chulalongkorn University.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at the faculty of political science, Chulalongkorn University.

Along the historical narrative of war and conquest between Burma and Siam, the Burmese mostly had the upper hand vis-à-vis the Siamese. Only during a brief period in the early 17th century, under their most ingenious military strategist King Naresuan, did the Siamese take the battle into central Burma. For much of the competing empire years, it was the Burmese who went on the march. Burma was fundamentally a warrior state, whereas Siam was quintessentially a trading nation. One kingdom was wholly preoccupied with war and conquest, the other mainly with trade and commerce. Mixed with geographical location and terrain and the course of history, these DNA strands in their respective peoples, lands and nationhood explain where Thailand and Myanmar stand today.

Geography was decisive. Burma was next to British India. Being a warrior race, the Burmese fought three wars against the expansionist British in the 19th century and lost each time, culminating with the ignominious dissolution of the Burmese monarchy in 1885. Each Burmese defeat partly enticed the Siamese to make concessions to the British, capped by the transfer of northern Malay states to Britain in 1909. After Britain annexed Burma, the Siamese also made concessions to French imperialists who were pressing from Indochina. In 1893, the French gained much of what is Laos and Cambodia today. Such is the close historical parallel between Burma and Siam—between a warrior culture that could not withstand Western imperialist forces, and a culture of slippery but pragmatic Siamese that survived.

The intervening 20th century also blew different storms towards the two nations. Burma eventually regained independence and became a thriving democracy in the 1950s before an autarkic military rule set in by 1962. After a quarter century of insularity, it opened up again in fits and starts, now beset by baggage from its past. Myanmar’s unruly ethnic composition and mountainous terrain have posed challenges for governance and stability. Its suppressed superiority complex may now be at the heart of the widening religious and sectarian violence after the political openings and reforms that began in 2011.

By contrast, Thailand, as Siam was called after 1939, over much of the same period from 1957 to 1988 harbored military regimes that were open to business, trade and investment, perhaps because of its lack of colonization and its proclivity for trade and commerce. The generals empowered development technocrats to run the economy, laying the groundwork for four decades of relative economic prosperity. The long boom spawned growing middle classes that promoted gradual democratization. But it was too intense and its fruits were too concentrated in upper and middle classes and did not sufficiently cascade down to the lower rungs. Thailand’s social inequalities and economic disparities over time were later exploited by Thaksin Shinawatra. And Thailand has been stuck in a holding pattern since its 2006 military coup. Mr Thaksin’s forces have won all elections since 2001 but are unable to rule and lead resolutely, whereas his adversaries can stymie and stonewall to keep Mr Thaksin at bay but cannot win once at the polls.

After Burma’s and Siam’s paths diverged over a century ago, Myanmar and Thailand have reconnected in a new orbit of the 21st century. Thailand now relies on Myanmar for much of its gas supply (its main source of electricity generation), labor force and security needs, such as drugs suppression. Without Myanmar, Thailand would face power blackouts and skyrocketing wages. For its part, Myanmar has shelved its nuclear weapons program, and has gained from workers’ remittances, as well as aid, loans, investment deals and capacity-building programs from Thailand. The Bank of Thailand, for example, assisted with the recent float of the kyat.

Thailand also no longer officially supports the hitherto “buffer” policy of aiding, abetting and sheltering ethnic minorities, such as the Shan and the Kayin, who have battled against the Tatmadaw. In fact, there is now a consensus in Thailand over its Myanmar policy. All Thai governments, whether under the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra or the opposing former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2008-11, have pursued cooperation and collaboration on all matters of bilateral trade and development with Myanmar. The same consensus, for example, does not hold with Thai policy towards Cambodia.

The current big deal in Myanmar-Thai relations is the Dawei mega-project. What both sides must do is take a long-term view and avoid myopic parochial interests. The multi-billion-dollar deal began in 2008 when Thai construction conglomerate Ital-Thai Development was awarded a concession to develop 250 square kilometers centering on Dawei. As the project languished, the Yingluck government has shouldered the burden and appears poised to undertake some investments with public funds for ITD’s private benefit.

In addition, Mr Thaksin lurks in the background as he has reportedly expressed investment interests in relation to the project. Myanmar’s authorities would do well not to repeat Cambodia’s mistake by taking sides in Thailand’s deeply divided society. Myanmar’s dealings with Thailand should be multifaceted and inclusive with all major stakeholders. The same goes the other way. Thailand’s government should extend goodwill gestures and deal with Myanmar’s principal stakeholders in a comprehensive fashion, and not favor any particular party or faction with vested economic and business interests in mind.

More broadly, Thailand is Myanmar’s corridor to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and Myanmar’s awakened presence has turned mainland Southeast Asia into a beckoning and burgeoning region that will only expand in GDP terms. The combined consumer market of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, along with connected links to Vietnam, Yunnan and Malaysia, exceeds 350 million, underpinned by abundant natural resources and growing transport and communications connectivity. The economies of this region are set to grow on their own, overlapping with some of the promises of the Asean Community after 2015. The challenge will be politics, big and small.

The big politics will be how to keep a major-powers balance in mainland Southeast Asia, leveraging the United States, Japan and Asean on the one hand and China on the other. This region is China’s natural sphere of influence but it must be kept in check by other major powers to ensure that regional interests are kept in a workable and mutually beneficial mix. No major power should be allowed to dominate mainland Southeast Asia. Myanmar and Thailand can leverage the other major players to achieve this objective.

The small politics will be within. Notwithstanding shortcomings and setbacks, Myanmar’s democratic development must remain on track, while Thai democracy must consolidate and entrench beyond elections. In both countries, democratic institutions to promote checks-and-balances, participation, and transparency and accountability are imperative. Myanmar and Thailand may be at different stages on different roads, but their ultimate destinations are so close that it is now in both countries’ interests to embrace each other with the same energy with which they once fought.

This story appeared in the June 2013 print issue of the Irrawaddy Magazine.