At a meeting with security officials in Singapore last month, US Department of State Counselor Derek Chollet said what most international observers think when he stated that there is “no chance” that elections, which Myanmar’s junta has pledged to hold next year, will be free and fair. On the contrary, he said, “it can be an attempt to just manipulate the region, the international community.” But a notable exception is Pornpimol “Pauline” Kanchanalak, Thailand’s newly appointed special envoy to Myanmar. Speaking at the same conference, she said that the international community must take the junta’s commitment to hold elections “at face value” and that “condemnations, sanctions, ostracization” of the junta “have reached diminishing returns.”
It is hard to say whether Pornpimol really believed what she said or if it was merely an outcome of the notion that being kind to the junta and showing it some understanding would produce results. But, as last year’s coup clearly shows, the kind of “constructive engagement” that several outsiders, among them Western academics, diplomats and aid officials, pursued prior to the military takeover was severely misguided. As history has proved time and again, Myanmar’s generals do not listen to anybody but themselves. Pornpimol may also be a victim of another gross misunderstanding that is common among Thai policy makers: that they have a positive, special relationship with the Myanmar military that other outsiders lack. Therefore, the generals will listen to their “Thai brothers and sisters”, especially if they refrain from condemning human-rights abuses perpetrated by the Myanmar military.
But Myanmar’s generals may not be as easy to charm as Pornpimol and other Thai civil and military officials seem to believe. Behind the smiles and the handshakes often seen at official functions lies a long and troubled history of mutual distrust between the two Southeast Asian neighbors. Well into modern times, Thai schoolchildren learned little more about Myanmar than that its invading armies destroyed the old royal capital of Ayutthaya in 1767. Myanmar for its part had every reason to resent the Thais when they, in the early 1950s, became actively involved in sending supplies to renegade Kuomintang (KMT) forces that had retreated into northeastern and northern Myanmar following their defeat by Mao Zedong’s communist forces in 1949. The Myanmar military had to fight those unwelcome intruders while the US Central Intelligence Agency and its Taiwanese and Thai allies funneled weapons and other necessities across the border into the Shan States, where the KMT had its bases.
Then, in October 1953, traditional atavistic Thai fears of Myanmar were reinforced when the Myanmar military was trying to block a KMT advance south towards today’s Kayah State—and a Myanmar aircraft strayed across the border and accidentally bombed a village in Mae Hong Son province, killing two people and injuring five. The specter of the destruction of Ayutthaya was raised in sensational reports in the Thai media and the then Thai prime minister, Plaek Phibunsongkram, publicly threatened to shoot down any Myanmar aircraft that violated the country’s airspace. Privately, however, he invited leaders of the Mon and Karen rebel armies to Bangkok, where, for the first time, secret negotiations were held between representatives of ethnic armed organizations from Myanmar and senior Thai officials.
In March 1954, they arrived in the Thai capital. The Mon sent Nai Shwe Kyin, one of the founders of the Mon rebel movement, and Nai Hong Sa, who had a wide range of connections within Thailand’s ethnic Mon community. Saw Thra Din, a resistance veteran, represented the Karen National Union (KNU). They had a brief meeting with Plaek but negotiations were handled by Siddhi Savetsila, a young wing commander in the Royal Thai Air Force, and Charoentit Charunjamratromran, a prominent police colonel. Siddhi later became a politician and was Thailand’s foreign minister from 1980 to 1990 and, from 1991 to his death in 2015, served as a member of the Privy Council of the Thai King.
That clandestine visit of the Mon and Karen rebel leaders in 1954 marked the beginning of a new Thai policy towards Myanmar—one that would, to the chagrin of Myanmar’s military commanders, last for decades. For Thailand to police the porous, 2,416-km border with its historical enemy would have been a difficult and extremely costly undertaking. The solution was to encourage ethnic armed organizations from Myanmar to serve as buffers. While the Thai leaders pledged no direct support, the rebels were allowed to set up camps along the frontier, their families were allowed to stay in towns and villages on the Thai side, and they could buy arms and ammunition from dealers in Thailand.
The first military coup in Myanmar in March 1962, and the subsequent introduction of a disastrous policy called “the Burmese Way to Socialism” made it possible for the ethnic rebels to strengthen their respective armed forces. “Socialism” in a Myanmar context, as articulated by the new dictator, General Ne Win, meant that everything in sight was nationalized and handed over to about 20 military-run state corporations. But those were so badly managed that Myanmar’s own production of consumer goods collapsed. Official imports also came to a standstill, as no foreign traders knew how to deal with the military corporations and the officers who headed them had very limited business experience.
Enterprising black marketeers and smugglers, however, soon made up for the shortcomings. Most of the goods were brought in from Thailand—and the KNU and other ethnic rebels set up a series of “toll gates” along the Thai border where the contraband was taxed. Links were established with Thai merchants and military commanders, whose interests often were intertwined. Consumer goods, textiles, machinery, transistor radios and tape recorders, machinery, spare parts for vehicles and medicine went from Thailand to Myanmar while teak, other forest products, minerals, jade, precious stones, antiques and opium flowed in the opposite direction.
The total value of those unofficial transactions has never been thoroughly researched, but it is fair to assume that Thailand owes much of its rapid economic growth and development in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s to the thriving black-market trade with Myanmar. The Myanmar government had to turn a blind eye to these smuggling activities along the Thai border, given a choice between contraband or no goods at all, which could result in political and social unrest. And, as an inadvertent result of Gen. Ne Win’s economic policies, the ethnic rebels were able to buy more, and more sophisticated, weapons and maintain control over most of the Thai-Myanmar border.
It was not until after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising in Myanmar that the Thais began to re-evaluate their border-buffer policy. The protesters did not manage to dislodge the military from power, but the Burmese Way to Socialism was abandoned and free enterprise was allowed—albeit under the strict supervision of the then junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council. In the wake of the uprising, thousands of dissidents flocked to the Thai border, where they and their activities were tolerated—but then an unprecedented and very controversial deal was struck between Myanmar’s military authorities and the Thai army commander at the time, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. In December 1988, he went to Yangon and broke the international isolation that had been imposed on Myanmar after thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators had been massacred in the streets of the capital and other cities and towns. In return, Thai companies received lucrative logging contracts, fishing rights and deals in the hotel business. Chavalit also agreed to repatriate student activists who had fled to Thailand after the massacres, and that was not always done voluntarily.
With direct business links being established between Thai and Myanmar interests, the old border buffer concept was becoming obsolete. It became more difficult, but not impossible, for the dissidents, and the ethnic armed organizations, to operate along the border. Many ethnic groups from Myanmar, among them the Karen, the Kachin and the Pa-O, still have contacts with Thai military officers and local government officials, which makes it difficult for the authorities in Bangkok to fully implement the new policies. And then there are groups like the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), which is armed by the Thais and is still functioning as a border buffer, but more to prevent the China-allied United Wa State Army from establishing a stronghold on the Thai border than to keep the Myanmar military at bay. But there are also occasional skirmishes between the RCSS and Myanmar junta forces. And some guns, hand grenades and explosives are even now reaching Karen guerrillas as well as the urban dissidents with whom they are allied.
One should not be surprised to learn that the Myanmar military sees the Thais as duplicitous. Private discussions with former Myanmar army officers also reveal the disdain with which they see their Thai counterparts, who they say are weak and lack combat experience. And, not to be forgotten, the Myanmar military has a long memory and cannot ignore decades of Thai border politics—which were entirely in favor of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations—or that the Thais, at the same time, took advantage of Myanmar’s economic predicaments. That the Thais can be used, but not trusted, appears to be the consensus among Myanmar officers. Pornpimol may be correct in assuming that the Myanmar military has a very “special relationship” with the Thais. But it is not in the way she thinks, and it will not produce the results she expects to get in return for “being nice” to the generals in Naypyitaw.
Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades.