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Opinion: Thai Gov’t’s Risky Gamble on Myanmar Junta

Police charge forward to disperse protesters in Mandalay, Myanmar on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photos)

The Thai government on Wednesday controversially became the first administration to welcome the Burmese junta’s foreign minister abroad in Bangkok on Wednesday. The not-so-stealth visits became apparent despite hours of Thai Foreign Ministry bureaucrats refusing to confirm the news.

Foreign media reported about it and even Myanmar’s state media broadcasted the photo of Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha receiving retired army colonel Wunna Maung Lwin, the Burmese junta’s foreign minister in Bangkok.

A state-owned English-language Burmese newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar, even stressed on its headline that the visit was “at the invitation” of the Thai PM, thus using the meeting as a propaganda tool of the Burmese junta desperate for a veneer of legitimacy.

This is sending a clear but wrong signal to future coup makers in the region that Thailand, or at least the Prayut regime, has no qualm welcoming representatives of a coup maker from the region. After all, Prayut was once a coup maker seeking a veneer of legitimacy in the international arena as well.

Earlier, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also met the Burmese junta’s minister.

You can look at this diplomatic overture both ways. First as an earnest attempt to rein in the Burmese junta’s penchant for violence and repression. Second, as a way to maintain Thailand, Indonesia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, relevance in light of what’s happening in Myanmar over the past few weeks and prevent more headaches for other ASEAN member states such as possible large outflow of refugees.

The line between diplomatically trying to restrain the Burmese generals and that of in effect giving it a de facto endorsement is very thin indeed. I believe no matter what’s the intention, Thailand and Indonesia have made the wrong move that citizens of both countries could not be proud of.

This is partly due to the fact that the battle for the control of Myanmar is far from over and no public attempts have been made to meet with those from the other side of the political conflicts.

Hundreds of thousands of Burmese are still out on the streets daily and not just in Yangon and Mandalay but other cities as well. It also happened just days after the fatal shootings of three anti-junta demonstrators. The death toll is now seven.

There’s no denying that Indonesian Foreign Minister, who held a 20-minute talk with the Burmese rep and Don later issued expressed concerns and cautions.

“We asked all parties to exercise restraint and not use violence… to avoid casualties and bloodshed,” Marsudi was quoted by the AP as telling a news conference after her return to Jakarta. The Indonesian foreign minister also emphasized the need for dialogue, reconciliation and trust-building, according to the same report.

What about Thailand? Thailand shares a common border of 2,401 kilometer long with Myanmar and hosts an estimated three to four million Burmese, mostly migrant workers. The kingdom sits in a strategic and possibly perilous position.

From a self-serving nationalistic point of views, Thais should only concern themselves with possible influx of political refugees and maintaining ties with whoever is in power, illegitimately or not.

Realpolitik dictates that Thailand try to ensure whatever little influence it has on Myanmar disregard of how illegitimate the regime in Naypyitaw may be.

Prayut, himself a former junta leader, naturally felt more comfortable dealing with a foreign junta after all. FM Don also served as foreign minister under an illegitimate military regime when Prayut was still running the show as junta leader, or leader of the National Council for Peace and Order.

This means Thai citizens cannot expect the Thai government to behave in a way that they could be proud of. In fact, upon learning about the meeting, I feel ashamed as a Thai and sorry for the Burmese people still trying their best and risking lives to overthrow the Burmese junta.

I would like to express a sense of contrition. No, I am sorry and please accept my apology that the Thai government behaved this way and refused to recognize the voices of the voters in Myanmar which was made explicit last November. The Thai government betting on the Burmese junta was nothing short of a shameful move.

The Thai government doesn’t fully represent Thailand, however. And this is where the people-to-people relations should come into play. It’s time for concerned Thai citizens to do whatever they can to redeem the goodwill of the Burmese people in this trying time. They can also try to pressure the Thai government to behave more responsibly also it may be futile.

Or we can simply sit and watch ASEAN eventually turning into a full-fledged Association of Southeast Asian Autocratic nations.

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