The battle of the public, allied with civil society in Myanmar, against the repressive junta is increasingly being seen, in a broader context, as a struggle in Southeast Asia between authoritarian forces and those aligned with democracy or to put it another way, a choice between western practices and values and those of China or the Communist Party in Beijing. It is an evolving conflict or division that leaves Thailand in an invidious position and makes its traditional diplomacy more difficult.
As Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai gets ready to travel to Jakarta to attend an unprecedented ASEAN summit to try to find a way out of the crisis in Myanmar which threatens a bloody civil war in that country, the stakes are far higher for Thailand than the ฿7 to ฿8 billion invested by Thai investors in the country or even the $3.79 billion in exports in 2020. Many observers see the conflict now raging in Myanmar as another proxy battle in Southeast Asia between authoritarian forces and the spirit of democracy for the soul and future of the region where increasingly there is a pro-Chinese and anti-Chinese dynamic and a correlation between democracy and prosperity.
Government House, on Monday, confirmed that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha will not attend an important ASEAN summit on Saturday to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Myanmar which increasingly poses a threat to the economic interest of the Southeast Asian region as well as its stability.
The World Bank, in a recent update on the country to Thailand’s west, which is reportedly on the verge of collapse, suggests that the economy there will contract by at least 10% in 2021 compared to an earlier forecast of GDP expansion of 5.9% in what before the February 1st coup, was an emerging economy with impressive rates of growth.
Younger generation have tasted democracy and prosperity in Myanmar and they want to keep it
Some seasoned observers have pointed to past brutal crackdowns by the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, in particular, the uprising against authoritarian rule in 1988 which the army managed to snuff out but not without a contraction of 11% in the country’s economy, as an indicator of how this may play out.
However, many are coming to believe that the current situation is different as a younger generation who have tasted years of democracy and economic success, have united with past generations in a refusal to accept the military coup d’état which ousted the democratically elected government of de facto leader and national icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, at the beginning of February.
Military coup in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi held with scores of leading political figures arrested by troops
The scale of the security and economic disturbance caused by resistance to the coup has surprised the world particularly in western countries who, for all their rhetoric, have so far only applied selective sanctions which long-standing experts on Myanmar have pointed out will have no impact on the thinking or actions of the repressive military there led by strongman General Min Aung Hlaing.
Inward investment has already dried up
Despite this, the worst fears of investors in the country have been realised as even without biting sanctions, inward direct investment has dried up while its economy is in free fall.
The protesters in Myanmar, while they use the three-fingered ‘hunger games’ salute popularised by Thai protesters, are quite different in several key respects.
Workers across the economy and within state agencies are refusing to cooperate with the junta
They represent, by and large, the whole country and an uprising which has seen government officials including customs and revenue officials, even police officers, come out to take the side with the protesters and refusing to work or co-operate with the junta.
This has led to banks being unable to function properly while only opening intermittently while the public has taken to burning down Chinese related investment or business concerns across the country and especially in Yangon.
Expert warns of Chinese troops being sent to Myanmar to protect Chinese interests as civil war looms
Aat Pisanwanich is the Director of the Center for International Trade Studies at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC).
He warns that the rising crisis in Myanmar where at least 10 of the ethnic rebel groups backed by militias have sided with the increasingly defiant and determined public, could eventually pose a threat to worldwide confidence in the Southeast Asian region.
He also raises the possibility of Chinese troops being sent to Myanmar to protect Chinese interests as the public backlash against China and its investors gathers pace.
At a state press conference in Beijing in mid-March, a statement emerged that ‘drastic action’ may have to be taken if attacks on Chinese interests in Myanmar continued.
Mr Aat warns the situation in Myanmar is now bordering on civil war and may ultimately threaten stability in the wider region.
Unprecedented ASEAN summit as the threat grows
This may well be the reason for the unprecedented summit being held in Jakarta on Saturday and where Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai will represent the kingdom.
This is part of an ongoing dialogue being driven by Indonesia to find some way out of the quagmire. So far the discussions have been at foreign ministerial level.
This week’s summit is one of national leaders but the Thai PM has chosen not to attend.
The leader of the military and junta in Myanmar, General Min Aung Hlaing, will be there but the parallel government there, appointed by those elected in the disputed November elections which precipitated the coup, have asked for a place at the table.
Polarising effects of the coup in Myanmar could see Thailand’s position come under more scrutiny
The coup in Myanmar has had a polarising effect on how Thailand is seen internationally and within the region as the junta in Myanmar is seen to be supported by authoritarian powers including China and Russia.
This has drawn Thailand’s close relationship with Beijing into the spotlight and a reappraisal of Thailand in the eyes of western media since the student protests broke out in July last year.
The uprising in Myanmar has highlighted how much more difficult it is for Thailand to play its traditional role as an intermediate power staying tactfully aloof as tensions between China and western powers, including the United States, are growing.
Thailand would, in the past, be expected to play the role that Indonesia is currently playing.
‘Government born of a coup’
One New York Times journalist recently described the ministry of Prayut Chan ocha as a ‘government born of a coup’ which is an obvious oversimplification much the same as any comparison between the protests in Thailand and the revolution now happening in Myanmar.
Nonetheless, it illustrates the kingdom’s perception problem in the western world’s media.
Across the border in the strife-torn country to the west, an overwhelming proportion of the population backed by mini armies in autonomous states who had signed ceasefire agreements with Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, are refusing to accept the usurpation of their political power and right to a brighter future on February 1st last when the army moved to quash over five years of democracy.
Thailand is the third-largest investor in Myanmar
Thailand is the third-largest investor in Myanmar coming in behind both Singapore which is the largest and China.
The total Thai investment in the country is between ฿7 to ฿8 billion, much of which has been jeopardised by the uprising with small Thai massage shops being forced to close their doors and manufacturing concerns unable to convince workers to return to work, purchase raw materials, conduct bank transactions or trade goods across the border.
There are growing fears that western powers will soon extend the sanctions to encompass all business concerns in Myanmar.
Even the current situation has led Thai business owners in the neighbouring country to request the Finance Ministry in Bangkok restart former financial facilities that were used in the past to assist Thai firms to trade with Myanmar before the country was rehabilitated after its return to democracy in a process between 2010 and 2015.
Exports to Myanmar, already down in 2020, will be devastated if a civil war erupts leaving Thailand facing a growing humanitarian crisis on its western border
Thailand’s exports to Myanmar were already down by 13% in 2020 from 2019 to $3.79 billion due to the pandemic which hit both countries but in the first two months of 2021, they fell by 15.2% and are expected to plummet even more sharply in the March to April period.
Many Thai investors and business concerns are facing a wipeout in their investments with trade-related activity now severely hampered.
It comes as the UN envoy to the country, Christine Schraner Burgner, has warned in the past few weeks, that it is facing an ‘imminent bloodbath’ and civil war if a resolution cannot be found.
In the short term, the conflict has already unleashed tens of thousands of refugees across Thailand’s border seeking to escape the fighting and insecurity.
An even greater conflagration there could soon present the Thai government with a bigger humanitarian crisis as it battles a menacing third wave of the virus, if some resolution to the crisis is not found.