Pornpimol Kanchanalak attends the Shangri-La Dialogue Summit in Singapore on June 11, 2022. /Flickr
By Bertil Lintner June 30, 2022
In a meeting with security officials in Singapore last month, US State Department adviser Derek Chollet said what most international observers thought when he said there was ” no chance” that the elections, which Myanmar’s junta has pledged to hold next year, will be free. and fair. On the contrary, he said, “it may be an attempt to manipulate the region, the international community.” But one notable exception is Pornpimol “Pauline” Kanchanalak, Thailand’s new special envoy to Myanmar. Speaking at the same conference, she said the international community must take the junta’s commitment to holding elections “to the letter” and that the “condemnations, sanctions, ostracism” of the junta “have reached diminishing returns”.
It’s hard to say if Pornpimol really believed what she was saying or if it was just the result of the idea that being nice to the junta and showing them some understanding would produce results. But, as last year’s coup makes clear, the kind of “constructive engagement” that many outsiders, including Western academics, diplomats and aid officials, pursued before the military takeover was gravely flawed. As history has proven time and time again, Myanmar’s generals don’t listen to anyone but themselves. Pornpimol may also fall victim to another gross misunderstanding that is common among Thai policy makers: that they have a positive and special relationship with the Myanmar military that other foreigners do not have. Therefore, the generals will listen to their “Thai brothers and sisters”, especially if they refrain from condemning the human rights violations perpetrated by the Burmese military.
But Myanmar’s generals may not be as easy to charm as Pornpimol and other Thai civilian and military officials seem to believe. Behind the smiles and handshakes often seen at official receptions lies a long and troubled history of mutual distrust between the two Southeast Asian neighbours. Well into modern times, Thai school children have learned little more about Myanmar than the fact that its invading armies destroyed the former royal capital of Ayutthaya in 1767. Myanmar, for its part, had all the reason to resent the Thais when, in the early 1950s, they became actively involved in sending supplies to renegade Kuomintang (KMT) forces that had retreated to northeast and northern Myanmar after their defeat facing the communist forces of Mao Zedong in 1949. Myanmar’s military had to fight off these unwanted intruders while the US Central Intelligence Agency and its Taiwanese and Thai allies funneled weapons and other necessities across the border into the Shan States, where the KMT had its bases.
Then, in October 1953, traditional atavistic Thai fears of Myanmar were heightened when the Burmese army tried to block a KMT advance south into today’s Kayah state – and that Burmese plane strayed across the border and accidentally bombed a village in Mae Hong Son province. killing two people and injuring five. The specter of Ayutthaya’s destruction was raised in sensational Thai media reports and Thailand’s then Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkram publicly threatened to shoot down any Myanmar aircraft that violated the country’s airspace. . Privately, however, he invited the leaders of the Mon and Karen rebel armies to Bangkok, where, for the first time, secret negotiations took place between representatives of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations and senior Thai officials.
In March 1954, they arrived in the Thai capital. The Mon sent Nai Shwe Kyin, one of the founders of the Mon rebel movement, and Nai Hong Sa, who had a wide range of connections within the Mon ethnic community of Thailand. Saw Thra Din, a resistance veteran, represented the Karen National Union (KNU). They had a brief meeting with Plaek but the negotiations were led by Siddhi Savetsila, a young Royal Thai Air Force wing commander, and Charoentit Charunjamratromran, a prominent police colonel. Siddhi later became a politician and served as Thailand’s foreign minister from 1980 to 1990, and from 1991 until his death in 2015 served as a member of the Thai King’s Privy Council.
This clandestine visit by rebel leaders Mon and Karen in 1954 marked the beginning of a new Thai policy towards Myanmar – a policy which, to the chagrin of Myanmar’s military commanders, would last for decades. For Thailand, policing the porous 2,416 km border with its historical enemy would have been a difficult and extremely expensive undertaking. The solution was to encourage Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations to act as buffers. While Thai leaders promised no direct support, the rebels were allowed to set up camps along the border, their families were allowed to stay in towns and villages on the Thai side, and they could buy weapons and ammunition to dealers in Thailand.
The first military coup in Myanmar in March 1962 and the subsequent introduction of a disastrous policy called “the Burmese road to socialism” allowed the ethnic rebels to build up their respective armed forces. “Socialism” in a Burmese context, as articulated by the new dictator, General Ne Win, meant that everything in sight was nationalized and handed over to a score of military-run state corporations. But these have been so mismanaged that Myanmar’s own production of consumer goods has collapsed. Official imports also came to a halt, as no foreign traders knew how to deal with the military companies, and the officers running them had very limited trading experience.
However, enterprising black merchants and smugglers soon filled the gaps. Most of the goods were imported from Thailand – and the KNU and other ethnic rebels set up a series of “toll gates” along the Thai border where contraband was taxed. Links were established with Thai merchants and military commanders, whose interests were often intertwined. Consumer goods, textiles, machinery, transistor radios and tape recorders, machinery, vehicle spare parts and medicines went from Thailand to Myanmar while teak, other forest products, minerals, jade, gems, antiquities and opium flowed in the opposite direction.
The total value of these unofficial transactions has never been thoroughly researched, but it is fair to assume that Thailand owes much of its rapid economic growth and development in the 1960s, 70s and 80s to the flourishing black market trade with Myanmar. The Myanmar government had to turn a blind eye to these smuggling activities along the Thai border, given the choice of smuggling or no goods at all, which could lead to political and social unrest. And, as an unintended consequence of General Ne Win’s economic policies, the ethnic rebels were able to purchase more and more sophisticated weapons and maintain control over much of the Thai-Myanmar border.
It was only after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising in Myanmar that Thais began to reassess their border buffer policy. The protesters failed to dislodge the military from power, but Burma’s path to socialism was abandoned and free enterprise was allowed, albeit under the strict supervision of the then junta, the Council of restoration of state law and order. Following the uprising, thousands of dissidents flocked to the Thai border, where they and their activities were tolerated, but an unprecedented and highly controversial agreement was subsequently reached between the Myanmar military authorities and the army commander. Thai at the time, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. . In December 1988, he traveled to Yangon and broke the international isolation imposed on Myanmar after thousands of pro-democracy protesters were massacred in the streets of the capital and other towns and villages. In return, Thai companies received lucrative logging contracts, fishing rights, and hospitality contracts. Chavalit also agreed to repatriate student activists who had fled to Thailand after the massacres, and this was not always done voluntarily.
With the establishment of direct trade links between Thai and Burmese interests, the old concept of a border buffer was becoming obsolete. It has become more difficult, but not impossible, for dissidents and ethnic armed organizations to operate along the border. Many ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the Karen, Kachin and Pa-O, still have contact with Thai military officers and local government officials, making it difficult for authorities in Bangkok to fully implement the new policies. And then there are groups like the Shan State Restoration Council (RCSS), which is armed by the Thais and still functions as a border buffer, but more to prevent the united army of Wa State, allied to China, to establish a bastion on the Thai. border than to keep the Burmese army at bay. But there are also occasional skirmishes between the RCSS and the Burmese junta forces. And some guns, hand grenades and explosives are now even reaching Karen guerrillas as well as urban dissidents with whom they are allied.
We should not be surprised to learn that the Burmese army considers the Thais to be deceitful. Private interviews with former Myanmar army officers also reveal the disdain with which they view their Thai counterparts, whom they describe as weak and inexperienced in combat. And, it must not be forgotten, the Myanmar military has a long memory and cannot ignore decades of Thai border policy – which was entirely in favor of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations – or that the Thais, at the same time , have taken advantage of Myanmar’s economic difficulties. . That Thais can be used, but not trusted, seems to be the consensus among Myanmar officers. Pornpimol may be correct in assuming that the Myanmar military has a “very special relationship” with the Thais. But it’s not in the way she thinks, and it won’t produce the results she hopes to get in exchange for “being nice” to Naypyitaw’s generals.
Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has written about Asia for almost four decades.