When I was growing up, my great grandfather once told me about the evils of the Burmese people. He told me how they destroyed our ancient capital, took her people hostage, and pillaged one of the great cities of the world. He said that the country was eventually taken over by the British as karmic retribution for destroying ancient Siam.
I didn’t think too much of it back then. It was just one of many stories he told concerning history and Buddhism that I didn’t pay too much attention to.
As I grew older and studied a bit more history in my adolescence, Myanmar became synonymous with the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi and her struggles against the military government.
I was born in the mid-80s and much too young to remember anything of Thailand’s Black May in 1992 when the Thai army butchered pro-democracy demonstrators.
In my mind, Thailand was always a democratic state surrounded by the uncertain politics of Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. My father grew up at the height of the Vietnam war and so we were always watching Vietnam war movies featuring heroic Americans against the dirty communists. Thailand, in those Cold War struggles, was always on the side of ‘the good guys.’
Little did I know that our ancient enemies in Yangon would have more in common with us than my great grandfather let on. The history of the 20th century in Myanmar and Thailand is marked by constant military intervention in politics.
There is an arrogance among older Thais in thinking that we are somehow better than our neighbours to the west because we are “more developed” than they are or that our former monarchs navigated a course that never saw us colonized by the English or the French.
But what conservative Thais fail to see, and what the current generation do see, is that the factors that stunted development in Myanmar are now taking shape at home. Myanmar is a land rich in natural resources, both mineral and agricultural. Yet decades of military rule has stifled free trade and prevented the growth of the private sector. It is important to note here that Thailand did not truly develop until the reforms of the 1980s and liberalization and democratization of the 1990s. Before that, we too were held back by successive military governments and short-sighted leaders.
There is a reason that the military interventions taking place in Thailand after 1990 reverted quickly to civilian rule because the generals and technocrats of the time understood the damage that could be done with prolonged rule by the army.
Fast forward to 2021 and that is no longer the case.
The military generals that took power in 2014 have manipulated the system to remain in power over half a decade later. The country has suffered for it.
The technocrats they have brought in have been put off by their power games and power grab. That means a junior-varsity list of second-tier sycophants and incapable men now hold positions of power.
Economic growth is stunted and the private sector looks elsewhere for investment.
Our neighbors which we once held to be so inferior including countries like communist Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines regularly overtake us in growth and attracting foreign investors. Military rule in Thailand is slowly resembling the decades of military rule in Myanmar.
Myanmar too, has reverted to the rule of the generals. Threatened by the popularity of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Tatmadaw did what it knows best. It took power and jailed the opposition.
Now among the current and future generations, erstwhile enemies have become steadfast allies, united against those that would govern us absolutely and with total authority. The students and young people of both countries have risen up to challenge the notion that might is right.
They are fighting on the streets, three fingers held high, against the threat of tanks, guns, litigation, and imprisonment. We should at least lend them our sympathies if not for their conviction then for their courage. It is undeniable that the future of both countries are bleak with men in uniform at the helm.
That so many of my countrymen were so willing to plunge the nation into the dark abyss of military rule in 2014 was a sad thing to behold. That so many are still willing to abide by the military today, even after half a decade of poor governance is unforgivable. Myanmar’s history over the last half-century proves how difficult it is to recover from such an ordeal. Let us not forget it so readily in the misplaced desire for security and certainty.