Written by Sasiwan Chingchit.

Despite two years of unprecedented efforts to democratize and open up its economy, Myanmar still has a long way to go to provide peace, prosperity and democratic rights to its people. The country continues to depend on international assistance, encouragement and pressure to move ahead in the right direction.

As an immediate neighbor with a strong stake in Myanmar’s stability and development, Thailand has traditionally played an influential role in both economics and development, but this constructive contribution is now hampered by its own domestic political turmoil.

Economic and security stakes after 2011

Thailand shares a 2,401 kilometer-long border with Myanmar and has been among its top trade partners and the largest investors even during the military junta’s most isolationist periods. It ranks second, surpassed only by China, in terms of foreign direct investment and two-way trade. Seventy per cent of natural gas used for Thailand’s electricity generation comes from Myanmar, exposing Bangkok’s heavy reliance on a good cross-border economic environment.

Poverty and armed conflicts among and between ethnic groups and Myanmar’s military have spill-over effects on Thailand, which currently hosts around 140,000 refugees and more than two million immigrant laborers from Myanmar, most of whom are in the country illegally. Bangkok is also concerned with drug trafficking and illicit cross-border trade, which is often the direct result of security instability and a lack of government control in Myanmar’s isolated Southern and Eastern regions.

The 2011 announcement by the Myanmar generals to strive for a peace with the country’s ethnic rebel groups and to embark on democratization and economic liberalization was welcomed in Thailand. This shift was particularly promising because it coincided with Yingluck Shinawatra’s rise to the premiership and the stabilization of Thai politics and foreign relations for the first time in many years.

Thailand was ready to refocus on its neighbors and continue its policy of enhancing development in Indochina through bilateral and multilateral cooperation – part of a grand strategy to exert its leadership role in the sub-region. Under this framework, Thailand’s approach towards Myanmar is to consider that its security and prosperity is dependent on the security and prosperity of Myanmar. Unlike China, which worried about losing its political influence and business, Thailand welcomed Myanmar’s opening as a historic opportunity to consolidate its position as an intermediary between its neighbors and the global economy.

West Gate policy

Myanmar is the key to Thailand’s “Look West Policy”, in which it serves as a land bridge or “West Gate” to South Asia and Western China – a potentially huge import and export market for Thailand. In the West Gate Policy announced in 2010, Thailand planned to connect with Myanmar via at least five trade routes, three of which are part of the old trade routes aimed to link the Indochina with India, Bangladesh and China.

This inter-regional connectivity idea has been addressed in various multilateral forums, including the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Greater Mekong Sub-region Economic Cooperation, but the difficulty lies in Myanmar’s fundamental inability to improve transportation links and ensure basic domestic security. Following Myanmar’s opening, this plan was revived in 2011 along with Thailand-Myanmar cooperation on the Dawei project for a deep-sea port and industrial complex.

For Myanmar to develop in the long-term, it will require urgent and massive investments in its infrastructure, education and financial sectors, and Thailand can assume a crucial role in facilitating this through a variety of bilateral and multilateral partnerships it has developed over recent decades, often with the assistance or collaboration of advanced economies like Japan, South Korea and the United States.

For example, after 2011, Thailand roped in the United States as a partner in the Lower Mekong Initiative and, together with France, it developed a trilateral medical training project in Myanmar. On its own, Thailand has provided Myanmar with development funds since 1994 and since 2011 has been complementing international efforts to increase development in Myanmar by taking charge in area of infrastructure support, improving capacity for healthcare service, agricultural and livestock education. Other recent efforts include plans to provide vocational education, civil engineering and financial and communication management education.

Constructive engagement 2.0

Constrained by its energy dependence and the ASEAN principle of non-interference, Thailand’s role in democracy and human rights promotion in Myanmar has been limited. There was a temporary shift in 2000, when Thailand exerted pressure against human rights violation in Myanmar, but this was quickly reversed in 2001 by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who did not want to lose his country’s significant economic interests in order to denounce the neighboring authoritarian regime.

Bangkok therefore continues to rely on its ‘constructive engagement policy’, which it pioneered at the end of 1980’s and used as the basis to support Myanmar’s entry into ASEAN in 1997, preferring dialogue and integration to the sanctions and isolation previously practiced by the United States and the European Union.

This approach was heavily criticized by Washington, but may now come in handy to reach out to the Burmese military, just as the Thai government recently announced its new ambition to become a globally responsible player seeking to promote democracy and human rights. One such positive signal was given when the United States accepted Bangkok’s proposal to invite Burmese military officials to observe Cobra Gold, the Asia’s largest joint military exercises held annually in Thailand since 1982.

Trouble in Bangkok

The current political stalemate in Bangkok has already put many Thai economic initiatives in Myanmar on hold, especially the Dawei project and the railway system upgrade. Now leading a caretaker administration, Prime Minister Yingluck has been barred from new public spending and from executing next year’s fiscal budget plan.

This political uncertainty and the ongoing shutdown of many government offices risks further disrupting the timely execution of several key Thai investment programs for Myanmar. Political instability is also stifling the Thai economy, which in the long-term will translate into less capacity to provide the neighbor with crucial development assistance funds.

Finally, the chronic Thai temptation to resort to authoritarian measures to break political deadlock, whether through violent repression or a military coup, could further erode its emerging role as a liberal Asian actor with a value-based foreign policy and also signal to Myanmar that authoritarianism is the only response to domestic opposition and conflict.

Sasiwan Chingchit is an independent research consultant based in Washington, DC and a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Haweii. Sasiwan was previously a Lecturer in the Faculty of Political Science, Prince of Songkla University, Thailand.