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Thai Policy towards Burma PDF Print E-mail

                                       Thai Policy towards Burma

                                                                                    Gothom Arya*


            The present Thai government, upon assuming office, has stated that the promotion of  democracy  is one of its main policies. As a member of ASEAN, Thailand would like to see that other members have the same kind of policy in order to achieve a greater harmonization in politics. With the on-going economic crisis in the region, it is becoming more difficult to advocate Asian values to explain that economic prosperity should take precedence over the respect of human rights.

Since its inception, the ASEAN policy has been to resolve any problems through consultation and consensus. The corner stone of this policy is the non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. When Burma joined ASEAN, many, including western countries, strongly criticized that the admission amounted to the recognition of a brutal regime whose complete disregard of human rights is notorious and well established. The admission would weaken the Association as the new member is considered as a pariah in the world community. Anyhow, ASEAN justified its action in terms of geo-politics and pragmatism. One hopeful note was that it would be more effective to engage and express understanding in order to influence any positive change in that country. That policy was called constructive engagement to paraphrase the early American policy to oppose sanction against apartheid.

            The constructive-engagement policy is obviously to be desired as it yields non- tangible, or even negative, results. The SPDC has since then increased its repression of the opposition. More of the NDL members have been coerced to resign or imprisoned.  No progress has been made to address the need of the ethnic nationals. All political and economic powers are concentrated in the hands of military leaders. Political information is provided or controlled by the SPDC regime. Freedom of expression is considered as subversive. Fear prevails at all levels of life.

            When facing with the obvious, Mr. Surin Pitsuwan, the Thai Foreign Minister, would like to see some change in the official position of ASEAN with respect to Burma. Early last year, he proposed a new approach dubbed "flexible engagement". This policy would replace the current policy of constructive engagement. It would somewhat weaken the strict policy of non-interference on the internal affairs of member-states. The engagement would be flexible and frank discussions should be allowed in cases that the so-called internal affairs might have an impact on other member-state(s). The flexible engagement, according to its advocates, would be more effective in dealing with the situation given the current trends of globalization and liberalization.

            Mr. Surin's proposal received a strong support of his Filipino counterpart. Mr. Siazon said that the non-interference policy is necessary but may not be sufficient when dealing with the issues of Burma and Kampuchea because that policy is sometimes considered as laissez faire. In deed in the case of Burma, there is a need to achieve progress through peaceful resolution of conflict thus improving the deteriorating relation between The European Union (EU) and ASEAN. That was the only open support the Thai Minister got from ASEAN colleagues. While other ministers preferred to discuss the proposal during their close-door ministerial meeting, it came as no surprise that the Burmese minister voice strong criticism of the proposal. In July 1998, he issued a statement expressing his view that the proposal was based on regrettable and wrong premises and not only was it contrary to basic tenets of ASEAN but it will also create misunderstanding among ASEAN members and may negatively affect bilateral relations. According to him, the expression of concern about the political situation in Burma and about the possible overflow of Burmese internal conflict to Thailand was unfounded speculation. He argued that the Thai-Burmese relations were at time tense but always smoothed out, moreover, Burma has no conflict with other members of ASEAN. He also pointed out that Thailand's investment in Burma was among the highest and was only third after the United Kingdom's and Singapore's. He mentioned that there were two important on-going projects namely: the construction of the Mandalay International Airport by Italthai Development Co. and the joint-venture between Unocal, Total and the Thai PTT to exploit the petroleum and natural gas in the Andaman sea. So ASEAN should not change its policy that would only suit the interest of the US and the EU who always wanted to interfere with the Burmese internal affairs.

            It came as no surprise that Mr. Surin's proposal was turned down at the ASEAN ministerial meeting. ASEAN once again reaffirmed its policy of non-interference. With respect to Burma the constructive engagement policy was maintained with all its ambivalence. As a consolation, the meeting acknowledged the importance of frank discussions among the member-states. But unfortunately, the discussions about democracy and human rights in Burma could have been frank but remain unproductive.

            There should be a minimum set of achievements before Burma would become an honorable member of ASEAN and be welcome back with dignity to fold of the international community. Some of these achievements may be as follows:

(1)   the release of political prisoners,

(2)   the cease-fire with minority groups,

(3)   the stop of propaganda and persecution against the opposition,

(4)   the guarantee of the freedoms of speech and of information,

(5)   the genuine tripartite dialogue between SPDC, the opposition and the ethnic nationals in view of establishing a democratic regime within a precise timetable.

The international community can help improve the situation in Burma by being united and determined to apply both stick and carrot measures. The US and the EU (and may be later on the UN) should come up with both symbolic and concrete and enforceable economic, social and political sanctions. In the same time, proposal should be made to the SPDC that it is in the interest of the Burmese people to reach a political settlement and bring about a democratic regime. This settlement would allow for the implementation of a development plan in view of the improvement of the economic infrastructure of the country and the quality of life of the people in Burma with full participation of the international community and the Burmese and other nationals as a whole.       



*The author is a member of the Election Commission of Thailand and was formerly an associate professor in electrical engineering at Chulalongkorn University.

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