Nearly three months after the military coup in Myanmar, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will finally host an emergency summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Saturday to discuss the crisis. Expectations for any breakthrough are low.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s commander in chief and the leader of the coup on Feb. 1, is expected to attend the meeting (his first known trip abroad since the takeover). But the newly formed, self-proclaimed national unity government of Myanmar, a group of deposed legislators, has not been invited, prompting some analysts and human rights groups to argue that ASEAN tacitly is legitimizing the military government.
Whatever comes out of the meeting, one thing already is clear: The generals in Myanmar know they can count on more than the tacit support of their counterparts in Thailand.
It was the military government in Thailand that announced Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s attendance at the ASEAN summit. Yet Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand, a retired general and the leader of a coup of his own in 2014, has said that he would send an envoy in his place — an absence interpreted by some as a way to avoid any criticism of his ally.
Despite notable differences between the two countries — Myanmar was colonized, but Thailand, which has a royal family, with enormous sway, was not — they share one essential feature: Politics in both nations has long been dominated by a military claiming to act as the ultimate guarantor of the country’s integrity and in the best interests of a Buddhist majority.
Since its independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar has spent five decades under military rule and has been racked by numerous civil conflicts involving marginalized ethnic minorities. Although Thailand formally has been a constitutional democracy since 1932, traditional elites — royalists, bureaucrats, business leaders — have long looked upon coups as a necessary instrument to occasionally correct what they see as the excesses of democratic politics.
Today, the parallels between Myanmar and Thailand arguably are stronger than ever; the two governments seem to be reading the same playbook. Thanks to similar methods and close personal relations among their leaders, their policies are mutually reinforcing.
Back in 2011, when another junta in Myanmar announced the advent of political liberalization, it said reform was designed to usher in “disciplined democracy” — a sinister euphemism for co-opting any democratic institutions or practices in the service of expanding the military’s prerogatives.
Similarly, when in May 2014 Mr. Prayuth, still a general at the time, led the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Thailand, he vowed to create a “genuine democracy” (this, with the endorsement of the then king).
His junta, and now government, proceeded to quell protests and silence the political opposition by exploiting existing polarization within the public, notably between the monarchists and supporters of populist former prime ministers, and by re-engineering the political system — the Constitution, Parliament, the courts — to further entrench the military’s power.
In Myanmar, the February coup ostensibly was carried out in response to electoral fraud during the general elections in November that brought a resounding victory for the ruling National League for Democracy of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to practice a “genuine discipline-flourishing multiparty democratic system,” while promising to continue existing economic and foreign policies. This coup was “different” from others, he said.
His coup nonetheless has been violent and deadly, whereas the one in Thailand in 2014 essentially was bloodless. Otherwise, the two are remarkable for their similarities in means and ends. And that is no coincidence.
Notice the legalism, for example, as a claim to legitimacy. Myanmar’s false process of democratization in 2011 arguably served as an archetype for Thailand’s election in 2019.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s N.L.D. was elected, resoundingly, in Myanmar in 2015. But even then she could not become president, not under the terms of the 2008 Constitution, which had been drafted by the military. The Constitution, which is still in force, also reserves 25 percent of seats in Parliament for army delegates, places key ministries in the hands of the military and grants the generals vast emergency powers — which they invoked to justify their recent takeover.
Similarly, Thailand’s latest Constitution was drafted in 2016 by a military-appointed committee, with an aim not only to prevent popular civilian politicians from re-entering the political scene, but also to institutionalize the military’s influence. Among other things, it set aside seats in the Senate for the army.
Then there are the personal ties.
Back in 2012, when Gen. Min Aung Hlaing already was the commander of Myanmar’s armed forces, he asked Prem Tinsulanonda, a former Thai prime minister and former Thai Army chief (and a friend of Min Aung Hlaing’s father), to adopt him. Mr. Prem, a close adviser of the Thai king, was 92 years old and had no children of his own. He agreed.
Thus was established a kind of godson-godfather relationship, with broader political implications. One man could point to having a doyen of Thai politics as a mentor, the other to a political heir (if in a neighboring country).
After the 2014 coup in Thailand, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was the first ASEAN dignitary to meet the Thai junta, and reportedly he commended it for doing the right thing. Mr. Prayuth chose Myanmar as his first foreign destination for an official visit.
In February 2018, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was decorated by Thailand with the Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. The honor was bestowed as calls were growing for him to be prosecuted for genocide and war crimes for acts committed by the Myanmar Army against the Rohingya. Whatever condemnation might be pending at the global level, Thailand anointed him nonetheless.
Soon after the coup in Myanmar in February, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing sent a letter to Mr. Prayuth asking for Thailand’s support.
These personal connections have cemented ties between the two military governments and have helped them navigate their respective difficulties at home, as well as issues that might have pitted them against one another, notably drug trafficking, ethnic insurgencies along the two countries’ shared border or the risk of a flow of refugees from Myanmar into Thailand.
One example: In late March, Thai soldiers reportedly pushed away some 2,000 refugees fleeing airstrikes in Myanmar. (Thai authorities have denied this.)
Whether one calls the similarities between the rhetoric, methods and goals of the military governments in Myanmar and Thailand echoes, reciprocal inspiration or a feedback loop, they suggest more action in tandem to come — and less chance for a return to political liberalization in either country any time soon.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
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