Thailand and Myanmar: a bond in dictatorship and dissent

When the Tatmadaw, or the Myanmar army, instigated a putsch in the streets of Naypyidaw in the early morning of February 1, the international community exploded in condemnation.

For Thailand, though, the shock is less palpable. Standing at 13 successful coups since the 1932 Siamese Revolution, democratic backsliding in the country is nothing new. 

Indeed, Thailand, more than any other country, understands that freedom always comes with an asterisk. 

A common bond

Myanmar and Thailand share many bonds: our shared border, religion, tumultuous history, cultural influences, and political instability. More importantly, our people, particularly our youth, share a kindred spirit for democracy. Our peoples stand in solidarity with one another, holding the three finger salute that has become a symbol of the Milk Tea Alliance. We may speak different languages, but we sing songs with the same refrain – the same notes yearning for the same freedoms.

On the other hand, both our governments do not share this sentiment. The generals in power retain a nostalgia for political involvement and autocracy – be it through a democracy in name or blatant dictatorship. Both military junta came into power by invoking their respective self-drafted constitutions as a basis for their rule.

For Thailand, the current constitution effectively ensured that the incumbent Prime Minister and military junta leader retained his position through its provisions for a partly-appointed senate – despite the fact that the Palang Pracharath Party came second in the polls for the 2019 elections.

Similarly, the Tatmadaw had a hand in drafting the constitution and will ensure that its interests are kept in there. They invoked Articles 417 and 418 – effectively coup mechanism provisions in the making – of the already-flawed 2008 Constitution to declare a state of emergency and to assume control. 

But technical legal justifications should not obscure the will of the people. Thus, no matter their arguments otherwise, their pasts both leave an irremovable stain of illegitimacy. And when these arguments do not work on the people, both have arrested journalists and censored the media; in Myanmar’s case, the Tatmadaw have gone as far as nightly military blackouts.

In these past months, both countries have seen a rise in civil disobedience and dissent, but also crackdowns. The Thai police have used water cannons laced with chemicals and, more recently, rubber bullets against protestors at anti-government rallies. The situation in Myanmar is even more shocking: according to the United Nations Secretary General spokesperson, at least 67 people, including women and children have been killed, and hundreds have been injured in anti-government protests that are rocking the nation.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Thailand’s statement only expresses ‘concern’ about the situation in Myanmar and calls for de-escalation. No condemnation, no finger-pointing, and no mention of ‘coup’ or a return to democracy. 

International Reactions: a stark difference

Internationally, other countries have expressed much stronger views. From Special Rapporteur Tom Andrew’s recommendations for sanctions against Myanmar to the Presidential Statement of condemnation in the United Nations Security Council, the international community is reacting with the kind of censure rarely seen aimed at Thailand.

It is not just that the Tatmadaw’s tactics are more draconian, although that plays an important part. As aforementioned, coups have become a regular occurrence in Thailand. And while Thailand is not entirely free from Western sanctions following coups, Thailand has always had good relations with the West. Thailand is the first in Southeast Asia to establish relations with the US and remains a long-standing ally through various military coups. 

Furthermore, Thailand’s geopolitical position in the centre of Southeast Asia’s mainland has been strategically important for many Western countries since the colonial era and throughout the Cold War. At present, the West fears Chinese influence over Thailand, especially if Thailand continues to be alienated. Thus, despite sanctions against Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visited the White House during the Trump Administration in 2017, and visited European Union member states for trade agreements in the following year. 

This goes to show that while our countries share a bond in autocracy and in protest, the coup-makers in Myanmar will not necessarily pull off the same feat as in Thailand. Several commentators have already opined that the Tatmadaw have faced greater domestic resistance– unlike in Thailand, where sectors of society genuinely supported the military. Perhaps another crucial factor in the Tatmadaw’s growing weakness is international rejection of its rule. 

Whatever comes next for the Tatmadaw, it will be a long road ahead– a much longer one than Prayut had to face.

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