Post-Coup Ties Firm across the Burma-Thai Divide

By David Hopkins 2 September 2015

In June last year, Chiang Mai-based fortuneteller Warin Buawiratlert—the Thai military establishment’s soothsayer of choice over many years—proffered his take on the rise of Thailand’s then newly installed coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Prayuth was a trusted soldier for King Naresuan the Great in a past life, Warin advised, citing the revered warrior-king and bane of the Burmese who ruled Siam from 1590 to 1605.

The following week, the fifth installment of a film biopic on King Naresuan—played by Wanchana Sawatdee, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Thai army—opened in cinemas across the country. The junta, in power for less than a month following the May 22 coup, gave away free tickets.

The film franchise plays to a familiar trope of Thai popular culture and nationalist readings of Thai history: of the heroic Siamese defending or reclaiming the Kingdom from the invading Burmese hordes.

“This is part of how the nation state has been created in Thailand… the process of national identity building. We need to have an enemy,” Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun told The Irrawaddy.

But while this time-honored casting of Thai heroes and Burmese villains remains a feature of some nationalistic films and school history textbooks, it is a narrative far removed from the present state of bilateral relations.

 Relationship at its ‘Strongest’

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, Burma’s Ambassador to Thailand Win Maung, a former major in the Burmese army, echoed what officials on both sides have been at pains to point out in recent months.

That today, “the relationship between Thailand and Myanmar has reached its strongest point.”

Burma’s army chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, did little to dispel this view during a visit to Bangkok last week when he praised “progress” in Thailand under the junta during a meeting with Prayuth and talked up cooperation between both nations’ armed forces.

Win Maung said the current state of relations was the product of years of diplomacy spanning various Thai administrations.

“It has been five years of building up. I have been here for seven years. We have been in a good relationship with Thailand since ex-prime minister Abhisit [Vejjajiva] and Yingluck [Shinawatra] until the current government,” he said.

But behind the cozy rhetoric, perennial issues such as the registration process for hundreds of thousands of undocumented Burmese migrant workers, appear no closer to resolution.

Indeed, the Thai junta has shown an aptitude more for brief, periodic crackdowns on the issue of the moment, rather than addressing problems at their core.

“Essentially Thai-Burma relations have always been erratic. There’s mutual distrust over issues like ethnic insurgencies, the drug trade, border demarcation, the Rohingya leaving Burma for Thailand… there are so many questions and obstacles in this bilateral relationship,” Pavin recently told The Irrawaddy.

“They still have to work out which issues they want to tackle and which issues they want to put aside, for the sake of good relations.”

Clear Priorities

Relations have centered primarily on the economic realm, where the pledges and agreements—many aspirational—have flowed liberally in recent months.

In July, the two countries inked a visa exemption deal, Burma opened a new consulate in Chiang Mai and a tripartite pact involving Japan was signed in Tokyo on developing the long-stalled Dawei special economic zone—an ambitious and controversial undertaking that would include a deep sea port, power plants and an industrial estate in the coastal capital of Burma’s Tenasserim Division.

Both countries have vowed to boost two-way trade, worth US$8.15 billion in 2014 according to the Thai commerce ministry, to US$10-12 billion by 2017.

While bilateral meetings continue to feature vague pledges of cooperation on cross-border issues including trafficking, illegal migration and the narcotics trade, border affairs are increasingly viewed through the lens of economic development.

Among the junta’s first decrees was to revive a decade-old initiative to establish a series of special economic zones in border areas, including in Mae Sot, Tak province, as well as Chiang Rai and Kanchanaburi provinces, to encourage investment from Thai firms backed by incentives such as low-cost migrant labor.

A ceremony inaugurating construction of a second “Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge” connecting Mae Sot to Karen State’s Myawaddy was held on Sunday.

Political Sympathies

The economic imperatives around which both nations have found cause for collaboration are also buttressed at present by, as Thai scholar Thongchai Winichakul put it to The Irrawaddy, “mutual political sympathies.”

Both countries’ militaries have long wielded significant political clout—a status quo that appears unlikely to change in the short term.

Burma’s 2008 Constitution enshrines the army’s influential role in the legislature and executive and mandates the commander-in-chief’s “right to take over and exercise State sovereign power” in a state of emergency.

The Thai junta now appears to be following the Burmese example.

A new constitution currently being drafted by a handpicked National Reform Council provides for a partially unelected senate, permits a non-lawmaker to be appointed prime minister and would allow for a special committee stacked with military officers to intervene in case of national crisis.

As Thai legal scholar Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang recently wrote in an article for New Mandala, under the new junta-drafted charter, “the military does not have to carry out a coup d’état because the coup has already been written in to law.”

If the charter is a window into Prayuth’s vision of “Thai-style democracy,” it appears eerily similar to Burma’s own “disciplined” variety.

The Irrawaddy’s Nyein Nyein contributed reporting.