Suspicious Neighbors: Neither Friend Nor Foe
The Irrawaddy (Cover Story)
May 1 , 2002
Protestations of friendship aside, Thailand and Burma remain fundamentally at odds over key issues.
Thaksin Shinawatra became the first Thai prime minister to openly admit that Thailand has been practicing a buffer zone policy in regards to Burma’s ethnic nationalities. Thaksin recently said that Bangkok would abandon its policy of supporting ethnic rebels. But the question remains: Can Thailand really afford to abandon its buffer zone policy?
During the Cold War, anti-Rangoon Karen, Mon and Burman forces along the border enjoyed a special relationship with Thailand. In the early 1970s for instance, Burma’s former prime minister U Nu had set up resistance group on the border that freely roamed about in Thailand. There was also a dissident radio station based in Ratchaburi.
Since 1988, however, many anti-government groups including the powerful fighting forces of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) reached ceasefire deals with Rangoon.
Except for the Karen, Karenni and Shan fighting forces along the border, other rebel groups have returned to the "legal fold". In 1995 and 1996, Karen rebels suffered a severe blow after losing their border strongholds to the Burmese military, particularly the Manerplaw headquarters.
To counter Thailand, Rangoon has also created a buffer zone policy. Pro-Rangoon forces such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army have repeatedly attacked refugee camps and civilians on Thai soil.
Meanwhile, Thais were also considering a shift in their foreign policy. By the late 1980s, with the threat of communist insurgency diminishing, Thailand’s policy of maintaining a buffer zone along its border with Burma had come under review. This opened up the possibility of forging closer relations with Rangoon at the expense of Bangkok’s alliances with anti-communist ethnic insurgents seeking independence or greater autonomy from Burmese rule.
The two countries began exchanging a series of high-level visits, including Thai Princess Chakri Siridorn’s visit to Burma in 1987.
The same year, current Thai Defense Minister Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh visited the Burmese capital in his former capacity as chief of Thailand’s armed forces and as the original architect of building "friendly relations" with Burma. At that time, he met with his Burmese counterpart, Gen Saw Maung, who went on to become chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) a year later. Since then, Chavalit has had more than a decade to "build confidence" between the neighboring countries.
According to a report from Singapore’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS), titled "Neither Friend Nor Foe—Myanmar’s Relations with Thailand Since 1988" written by Burmese defense analyst Maung Aung Myoe, Saw Maung made four requests to Thailand in connection with ethnic insurgents along the border.
Saw Maung reportedly asked the Thai government to prevent foreigners from gaining access to ethnic armies; to stem the supply of arms and ammunition reaching the border; to disarm and detain insurgents who retreat from battle, and if possible, turn them over to the Burmese authorities; and, to understand that the Burmese armed forces had no intention of occupying Thai territory.
Maung Aung Myoe also notes in his report that Chavalit surprised his hosts by saying that the insurgents were doing harm to Thailand and thus did not receive support from his government. Chavalit went on to suggest that the two armed forces cooperate to suppress border-based insurgency.
But the Burmese generals declined to respond to the offer. When Saw Maung visited Thailand in July 1987, Chavalit reiterated his desire to form a lasting friendship with Burma. "We won’t allow any people or anybody to come and destroy our friendship," he is quoted as saying in the IDSS report. "We are looking forward to have [sic] very good coordination and cooperation at every level of our command."
Notwithstanding these repeated protestations of Thailand’s friendly intentions, the Burmese remained skeptical. In fact, they were genuinely baffled by this sudden warmth from a country that had long portrayed Burma as its archenemy as a means of shoring up nationalist sentiment at home. Thus Chavalit’s proposals were met with a suspicion that lingers to this day.
It wasn’t until after the nationwide pro-democracy protests of 1988, when the Burmese generals’ hold on power was at its most tenuous, that Chavalit was able to demonstrate his whole-hearted support for Burma’s military rulers. Following up on an April visit, in December 1988 the Thai general returned to Rangoon with an entourage of businessmen, whose investments helped finance the regime’s continued rule at a time when it was almost totally isolated from the outside world.
In a convincing display of his good will towards the junta, Chavalit also oversaw the repatriation of scores of Burmese students who had taken refuge on Thai soil following the bloody crackdown on the protests inside Burma. According to the IDSS report, Sr-Gen Than Shwe, the current head of the Burmese military government, thanked the Thai authorities—and Gen Chavalit in particular—for their cooperation in sending the students back to Burma.
But the regime’s gratitude was short-lived, as Burmese intelligence sources soon learned that numerous dissident groups remained active in border areas in Thailand.
While Rangoon continues to decry Thailand’s apparent untrustworthiness, it should be noted that mistrust has also been strong on the Thai side. Thailand’s continued tolerance of anti-Rangoon elements on its soil can perhaps be seen in part as an attempt to retain a buffer against the ever-truculent Burmese military, as well as its ethnic allies in the drug-trafficking business.
But Padoe Mahn Sha, spokesman of the Karen National Union (KNU) denied to The Irrawaddy that they acted as a shield between the two countries: "We never consider ourselves as buffer state. We have been fighting for democracy and freedom."
Though Thai officials have officially severed relations with rebels along the border, Thai security officials based along the border still maintain relatively low key and informal contacts with rebels and dissidents.
When asked if Thailand would seal the border, preventing medical and food supplies entering KNU territory, Mahn Sha replied, "They should not do that."
Bangkok’s current leaders claim to have established friendly ties with Rangoon— particularly Chavalit’s offer to be a peace mediator between the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Shan rebels—but it is doubtful that he will be able to dispel Rangoon’s deep-seated doubts about the Thai government’s capacity to act in good faith. It seems that Chavalit’s "friends" in Rangoon do not trust him. According to a reliable Thai source, Chavalit's calls to Rangoon have gone unreturned.
Burmese leaders have quietly complained that Thailand treats Burma as a satellite state. Ironically, however, their insistence that Bangkok play by Rangoon’s rules—treating Thailand, in effect, as just another recalcitrant rather than as an equal—is likely to ensure that Thailand will not abandon its ties with Burmese dissidents and ethnic rebel groups anytime soon.
Maung Aung Myoe writes: "Conflicting and confusing signals from Thailand sent by the Thai government has further strengthened the Myanmar [Burma] government’s perception that it cannot trust Thailand."
This suspicion remains strong. Because of Thailand’s support toward ethnic insurgents, Burmese officials believe that the kingdom never wants to see Burma attain peace and stability.
Nevertheless, Thailand may no longer need a buffer zone policy if and when Burma can establish a peaceful federal union in the future. Only then, can the two sides build trust and amicable relations. The sooner this is achieved, the better it will be for both countries and for the region as well.