Opinion: By abstaining on Myanmar vote, Thailand joins unwanted club of nations

On 18 June 2021, the United Nations General Assembly put a historic resolution on Myanmar to a vote.

It calls for, inter alia, democratic transition, end of violence, and the prevention of the flow of arms into Myanmar. Although it does not quite go as far as calling for a global arms embargo, it is an important stepping stone to a diplomatic solution in the violence-ridden country. 

Indeed, UN mechanisms rarely ever change the world overnight, but this clear message stands out in a body which rarely condemns coups. While non-binding, the resolution indicates the collective presence of the international political will for the return of democracy in Myanmar. It is even more striking that none of the United Nations Security Council Permanent Members have voted against it. 

The resolution passed with 119 votes in favour, 36 abstentions and 1 vote against. Disappointingly enough, Thailand was among those who abstained, along with autocrats such as China and Russia. Notably, Myanmar’s own ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, voted in favour of it albeit without the blessing of his government. Only one country, Belarus, voted against the resolution due to its strong ties with the Tatmadaw, or the Myanmar military.

Regardless of what intentions Thailand had by abstaining – and its intentions are indeed extremely murky – the vote last Friday makes it seem as if Thailand is not supporting the cessation of violence in Myanmar. 

The Role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 

The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through its spokesman Mr. Tanee Sangrat, had provided several reasons for the vote to the press earlier this week. Firstly, the statement mentioned that the resolution does not fully take ASEAN’s role into account. Specifically, it does not reflect the five-point consensus agreed on April 24 at the ASEAN Special Summit on Myanmar in Jakarta. 

However, the resolution attaches great importance to the regional group’s mechanisms, even specifically calling upon Myanmar to implement the five-point consensus. Furthermore, it expresses its strong support for the ‘central role’ and constructive contribution of the body and also calls for Myanmar to engage with ASEAN and its special envoy for a peaceful solution. Contrary to the foreign ministry’s statement, the text could not possibly be more reflective of ASEAN’s efforts to resolve the crisis. 

It is also noteworthy that ASEAN member states are divided on this resolution, with Thailand, Laos, Brunei and Cambodia abstaining and the remaining member states voting in favour. The question that follows then is, given the divergence of opinions on issues crucial to the stability of the region, what can they achieve next?

No Name and Shame

Secondly, the foreign ministry spokesman further mentioned that Thailand wishes for both sides of the conflict to talk together, and for all parties involved to get back to the negotiating table. He highlighted the role of the international community in fostering trust. But the resolution may aggravate the situation because it condemned one side, and playing the “blame game” simply adds more fuel to the fire. 

Be that as it may, the reasoning can be likened to forcing a bully and its victim to talk it out. Put simply, it ignores the reality on the ground that the Myanmar armed forces are killing its own people. According to UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener, around 600 hundred people have died, 6,000 arrested, and 5,000 in detention. Without this acknowledgement, any process of reconciliation or trust-building cannot be meaningful for the Myanmar people.

Moreover, the resolution calls for all stakeholders to engage in dialogue, in line with the statement made by the ASEAN Chair on the 1st of February and the 2nd of March 2021. Granted, the resolution (rightly) condemns the use of force against the Myanmar people, but its multiple calls for dialogue seems to be in line with Thailand’s wishes for constructive dialogue. In this regard, it seems counterintuitive for Thailand not to support the resolution. 

Contextual Complexities

Lastly, the spokesman reasoned that the complexities of the conflict were not properly considered. This is especially important considering that Thailand is in a unique position – both geographically and politically – with Myanmar. As a country that shares a border of more than 2,400 kilometres and a close historical relationship with Myanmar, Thailand is directly affected by security issues in its neighbouring country. 

The unique relationship and security issues that Myanmar and Thailand share is a valid point. For one, instability in Myanmar brings fresh fear that Thailand’s western border will be overwhelmed with political refugees. This concern is compounded by the fact that refugees risk burdening Thailand’s healthcare infrastructure with the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, given that Thailand could not distance itself from the issue, stability in Myanmar is so much more imperative for us. It is a shame that Thailand does not see the resolution – with its paragraphs attaching great importance on finding peaceful solutions as Thailand stresses – as a path towards this stability. 

Of course, the elephant in the room is that the echelons of the Thai government want to preserve its close bond with the Myanmar military in spite of the tragedies unfolding next door, and Thailand’s abstention is likely a result of this. With the Tatmadaw killing more and more of its own people everyday, Myanmar becomes increasingly isolated in the international community. As its neighbour and a key ASEAN member, Thailand’s abstention vote on this matter does not bode well for us nor the region as a whole.

The UN Secretary General may have said that “we cannot live in a world where military coups become a norm,” but it is already a norm in Thailand. We cannot let the same happen to Myanmar.

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