By Loke Hoe Yeong
Thais used to enjoy a bustling democracy, while it looked across the border to gross examples of crackdowns on fundamental civil liberties by Myanmar’s military junta.
That has nowbeen spectacularly reversed. Thailand is now ruled by one of its most authoritarian military junta in its history, which is pushing through a controversial constitutional draft that some say will virtually put an end to free and fair elections.
Meanwwhile, Myanmar’s roadmap to democratisation seems to be progressing well, with its first civilian president in five decades in place, and now with a government led by its democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.
This reversal of roles, as it were, is not only confined to the political realm. Thailand was once regarded as an economic powerhouse of Southeast Asia, with growth rates hovering around 10% in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That ended of course with the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Now it is Myanmar that international investors are talking about as the next “frontier”. It enjoys growth rates of around 9%, albeit that the fruits of economic growth are not spread well across society.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s economy has stagnated. It is caught in a classic middle-income trap.
What could possibly explain this stark reversal of fortunes between Myanmar and Thailand?
Probing the raison d’être behind the reversal of fortunes
It is tricky to discuss and compare Myanmar and Thailand without losing some friends. After all, there has been a sort of nationalistic antagonism between the two countries that go back a long way to the pre-colonial era of Southeast Asia (Thailand itself was never colonised though).
One should nevertheless be careful to note the differences between the patterns of political rule in the two countries though.
Thailand has been caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of military coups, alternating with periods of civilian governments, since 1932. That year, a revolution led by the military ended absolute monarchy in the country. One of the big changes that movement initiated was the renaming of the country from Siam to Thailand, which also reflected a new identity for the kingdom.
Things have proceeded in a more linear fashion in Myanmar, where the military junta had been in a power for an almost continuous period of half a century. It reasserted its grip in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s and her National League for Democracy’s (NLD) success at elections in 1991.
Senior General Than Shwe and his contemporaries were left in a difficult position where they faced overwhelming international pressures sanctions. In 2011, the rise of the younger General Min Aung Hlain as the new army chief ushered in a new phase in Myanmar’s democratisation process.
The military still holds 25% of parliamentary seats currently, as provided for by the constitution, but the NLD’s victory at the November 2015 election was a major milestone in the roadmap to democracy.
It is in this difference that the raison d’être behind the reversal of political fortunes – and the consequential economic fortunes – may be discerned as in Thailand.
Thailand is in a critical period of transition at the present moment. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, revered by a large section of Thai society, has reigned for seven decades. He is now aged 88, and it is only fair to say that his reign is coming to an end. And it is not clear what will proceed thereafter.
The role of this latest period of military rule in Thailand therefore seems to feel mandated to oversee this period of transition which, if not managed carefully, could spark greater chaos in Thailand. Whether it is a self-imposed mandate, or one that the Thai military feels almost as a burden of responsibility, there is an overriding sense of latent chaos that should not be left unchecked.
This is not to excuse the military junta of its inexplicable crackdown on activists and even bloggers. It is a rather heavy-handed manner of controlling dissent – but the military was never cut out for the subtleties of civilian leadership, to say the least.
No doubt, the last two coups in 2014 and 2006 appeared largely to target the removal of influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political proxies. But the political situation in Thailand then was such that it was virtually impossible for the government to conduct business as usual.
The China factor
There is yet one more reversal of roles between the tow countries – their relations with China.
Myanmar conducted business – both in the economic and the political senses of the expression – closely with China during the period of military rule. Its recently opening up has brought in investors and other actors from countries that appear to counterbalance Chinese influence. This includes countries like the US.
A nationalistic backlash in Myanmar, centred on resentment towards increasing Chinese influence in the country, led the transitional government headed by former president Thein Sein to reconsider the country’s geopolitical strategy.
It is Thailand now that is orienting itself increasingly towards China. China’s influence in Southeast Asia has of course been growing over the years, and it is now more commonplace to see Chinese translations of signs in Bangkok alongside Thai – for touristic purposes primarily.
But it is a calculated act of balancing the US and other countries which have been criticising the Thai military junta’s violations of human rights and suppression of democracy.