[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

Burma in Thai Foreign Policy [1/2]

>From, Burma  Research Journal Vol 1 No 1   (Rainy Season)

               Burma in Thai Foreign Policy  (part 1 of 2)
                                            Kanbawza Win

     To day if one were to ask the question of who controls and
implements the foreign policy in Thailand, it would be rather hard to
give an outright answer. Theoretically it must be the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs and higher would be the Premier Office, but in reality
it was the powerful National Security Council which is made up of the
top brass which really controls the country and implements its foreign

     But looking back, to the not so distant past, one will see that
Thailand's foreign policy has changed from the days of the Vietnam War
and the Cambodia conflict, when the Vietnamese threat was the major
preoccupation and dominated decision making. At that time the emphasis
was upon national security as the overriding priority in foreign policy
and was facilitated by the role of the military in Thai politics, which
pursued its own corporate interest, under various pretexts which they
identified with those of the Thai kingdom. However, after the Vietnamese
had withdrawn from Cambodia, the foreign policy moved to a new direction
and the role of the military slowly declined. It has become
economics-driven, reflecting internal economic expansion in the absence
of external threat.

     Foreign policy towards the Southeast Asia region has been directed
by a wider vision that places Thailand in the role of economic
transformer. This vision has its roots in contemporary Thai history and
was expressed first by the Chatichai Choonhavan - it made no secret of
playing the role of a economic "catalyst" for growth especially in the
mainland regions of Southeast Asia. This policy of a "Golden Peninsula"
is aimed at changing the battlefields of Indochina into a market place
with Thailand playing a leading role. This was followed up by the first
and second Suchinda-Anand administrations and later by the Chuan
administration. It promoted Thailand as an economic power and its sense
of economic achievement. The view in the official circles is the country
is no longer just an ordinary Southeast Asian country as that of
Indochina countries or Burma but one whose economic transformation has
elevated its status into that of a regional power.

     Thai foreign policy towards its neighbouring countries was
exhibited in several outstanding characteristics. First, was the
dominant role of the military, which included, the Supreme Command
Headquarters, the Military's High Command and the National Security
Council. One of the architect  of Thailand's adoption of Constructive
Engagement is the former Foreign Minister Prasong Soonsiri. He was
associated with the national security approach to foreign policy after
having acted as NSC  adviser from 1980 to 1986 and thereafter Prime
Minister's adviser on security affairs until August 1988. The national
security establishment concerned itself with immediate security of the
land border with Burma, Cambodia and Laos as well as weapons purchases,
which it regarded as its own prerogative. At the same time it allowed
the Foreign Ministry to maintain relations with the outside world,
ASEAN, US, China and the rest. But border security was the area of the
military from which the Foreign Ministry was excluded. That is how the
military coordinated the effort to support the Khmer Rouge as a buffer
against Vietnam and to provide them with Chinese weapons. As far as the
western border is concerned the Thai military supported the KNU (Karen
National Union) by supplying them with arms at half market price and
giving them logistical support.

     Another characteristic was the importance it attached to external
allies - China and the United states which could support Thailand
against Vietnam. Since China shared a common border with Vietnam, it
obviously became a de facto alliance vis a vis Vietnam. The Thai
military aim was to prevent Vietnamese troops incurring into Thailand.
An agreement was reached with China, that  in return for Thailand to
facilitate the delivery of Chinese arms to the Khmer Rouge, the Chinese
on their part would stop supporting the Communist Party of Thailand
(CPT) which finally lead to the latter's downfall. This is how Thailand
had successfully used its foreign policy to help in the domestic policy.
But it was the U S that proved to be an ultimate guarantor of Thailand's
security under the 1954 Manila pact and supplied weapons and ammunitions
to Thailand. ASEAN was indeed a source of diplomatic support for
Thailand which could make its voice heard in the international foras.
This the Thai policy makers left it to the Foreign Ministry to explain
its actions to ASEAN audiences.

Market Orientated Policy

     The end of the Cambodian conflict released Thailand from its
national security obsession. This shift can be seen in 1988, when Burma
erupted into a national crisis and thousands of Burmese students fled to
the border areas and sought asylum with the Karen freedom fighters.
Thailand saw her chance not only to elevate herself in mainland
Southeast Asia but also to settle the old historical score with Burmese.
The Thai leaders knew too well that those who got the guts to face the
tropical jungles, infested with Malaria, were the brightest Burmese
students or rather the cream of the Burmese race and must find a way not
only to snub them so that Burma would not be able to rise, at least for
a generation but also to encourage the Burmese military Junta to stay in
power as long as it could, so that  Thailand could exploit the
situation. With this end in view Thailand broke with the West, Japan and
other countries by sending it's army commander General Chavalit
Yongchaiyudh to Rangoon, and became the first country to recognize the
Burmese military junta and establish economic and trade relations
     Even before that when Chatichai Choonhavan was elected as Prime
Minister on July 24 the trend was for reassessment of foreign policy
which would be based not only on global changes but in response to
Thailand's rapid economic growth which was 9.5% in 1987 and 13.2 % in
1988. The profile of Thailand's economy was rapidly changing;
agriculture as a percentage of GDP increased while manufacturing's share
increased and with it the demand for trade and market.
     Chatichai Choonhavan was one of the main architects of transition
in which Thailand adjusted to a new role as an Asian NIE and a regional
economic power. It was Chatichai who with his grandiloquent turn of
phrase formulated a regional vision for Thailand's foreign policy, which
struck a deep chord among the Thais. He emphasized the importance of
developing economic relations with Indochina and bringing it into the
wider community of Southeast Asia and, as generator of the area's
economic transformation, found support in the military's concept of
"Suvanaphume"( oko blrd ), the Golden Land. In the armed services day
speech of 25th Jan. 1989, the then Army Chief Chavalit referred to this
idea which embraced all of mainland Southeast Asia, including Indochina
and Burma in an area of prosperity.
     Chatichai  announced that henceforth Thailand would pursue an
"independent" foreign policy, given that the basis for the country's
reliance upon external security support was slowly being removed. In an
address in December 1988, he said that the age of "bending with the wind
" a metaphor commonly used to describe Thailand's foreign policy, had
come to an end.

The Decline of the Military

     The military overplayed its hand when Army commander Suchinda
Kraprayoon assumed the position of prime minister in March 1992. The
ensuing riots in Bangkok seems to demonstrate that the Thai military
would probably never again assume direct control in Thailand, and would
be less able to impose its security priorities upon Thai foreign policy.
The elected government of Chuan Leekpai, known as the Angelic forces
versus the Satanic forces, which supported the military, attempted to
roll back the military  from its previous commanding position and
encourage it to become professionalized as an inducement to avoid
politics. Senior officers associated with the old power clique led by
Suchinda and former Air Force commander Kaset Rojaninil and Isaraprong
Noondephakdi has all been removed. The size of the military is to be cut
by 15% over five years, and Thailand's 700 -1,000 generals were to
reduced in number as inactive posts are abolished. The annual intake of
the Chulachomklao Military Academy was decreased from 500 to 200, and
the announcement of military promotions was reduced from twice to once a
year. The internal peace keeping act, which allowed the Armed forces
supreme commander to suppress domestic riots and rebellions, was
rescinded by Parliament. But the structure of the Thai military was
still intact. Chatichai had proposed that the supreme command be
abolished as a remnant of the past and suggested that Thailand adopt the
American model of an integrated chief-of-staff system that would
supposedly be more readily controlled by civilian leaders. But the Chaun
government which is just a coalition of five political could not garner
enough political support for such a move, and, due to the mishandling of
the land distribution scheme, a new election was called in July 1995.
     Deputy Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan had stated that the Chuan
government's salient task was to manage the military and demilitarize
Thai society, but, up to this day, it is beyond their means. The Chuan
administration had attempted to manage the military through a divide and
rule policy which probably they have borrowed from their Burmese
counterparts. The Air Force and the Navy have been specially rewarded
the budgetary terms for its support of the pro-democracy forces in 1992.
     But it is a fact that the security emphasis has shifted to
Thailand's maritime interests in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman
Sea. At the NSC meeting in march 1993 chaired by Chuan himself, it was
decided that the Air force and Navy were to be fully equipped to defend
Thailand's security interests, which the Navy had defined as protection
of the southern seaboard, the fishing fleet and protection against
piracy. The Navy has a helicopter carrier under construction in Spain
and there were plans to purchase another one. It will also soon acquire
a submarine and frigates in addition to the six already purchased from
China. The Air Force will get another F 16 squadron. However the
argument of the protection of southern maritime interest hardly
justifies the type of military equipment purchased. F 16s, helicopters
and submarines hardly fit in this category. Admiral Vichit Kirunyavanij
had noted that the equipment purchases are such that the need to
maintain the balance in the region with the expanded fleet of the
neighbours. The sentiment is that the Navy and Air force should be
allowed their equipment for whatever reason so that they may act to
check the ambitions of the army. But they seldom think of the negative
effect of so drawing the armed forces into politics. But what ever the
outcome, it is a fact that security has lost its grip on Thailand's
foreign policy. NSC chief Charan Kullavanijaya's has remarked that the
strategy for the post cold War for Thailand is in the three main areas,
(1) fishing disputes, (2) demarcation of the borders with neighbours and
(3) the ethnic problem.

Thailand as Centre

     Chatichai's version of regionalized foreign policy would promote
Thailand's role in mainland Southeast Asia and was echoed by the
subsequent Thai leaders. General Chavalit had talked in terms of open
borders between Thailand, Indochina and Yunnan Province of China where
T'ai speaking   peoples   reside. It  was an  echo of " Pan Taism"
which has its roots in the earlier idea of a union of all T'ai speaking
peoples  including   the   Shan of   Burma   to be a 'Greater Thailand'
popularized during the premiership of Phibun Songkhram in the 40s and
50s. This is one of the main reason for changing the name of the country
from Siam to Thailand.
     Dr Anand Panyarachun, who was the Premier after Chatichai was
ousted, saw Thailand as a gateway to Indochina and cast it in the
pivotal role of a commercial, financial, and distributive centre for
mainland Southeast Asia. According to Anand, Thailand must shoulder the
important task of overcoming the division of Southeast Asia--which was a
consequence of the Cold War. Chuan Leekpai has expressed similar ideas,
referring to Thailand as a "financial gateway" to the region and its
role as a bridge between mainland Southeast Asia and the outside world.
In fact Chuan had fleshed out his conception of a regional role for
Thailand by stressing the importance of eastern and southern seaboard
programs that would be linked with the economic activities of neighbours
including Malaysia and Indonesia. Mahathir during a visit to Bangkok in
1993 had proposed the growth triangle involving Southern Thailand,
Northern Malaysia and Singapore, based upon the encouragement of
tourism, agriculture and telecommunication.
     A similar idea was also seen in the creation of northern quadrangle
involving southern China, Laos, Burma and northern Thailand. Thai
companies have promoted the construction of a 225 km road into this
project, connecting Thailand, Burma and Yunnan. But the problem is in
Burma, where the road runs across the area controlled by the drug
kingpin Khun Hsa, and that is why the Burmese army is resolutely
mounting military operations against the Khun Hsa's Mong Tai army.

(end of part 1)
Your e-mail reply to this message WILL be *automatically* ANONYMIZED.
Please, report inappropriate use to                abuse@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
For information (incl. non-anon reply) write to    help@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
If you have any problems, address them to          admin@xxxxxxxxxxxxx