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Myanmar and Thailand in a mainland great game

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In Brief

It used to be that Thailand was the main game in mainland Southeast Asia. For decades, its immediate neighbourhood was problematic, beset by communist expansionism to the east and autarkic isolationism to the west.


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But Myanmar’s ongoing political openings and economic reforms, as recognised by the World Economic Forum held in the country on 5–7 June, have changed mainland Southeast Asia’s equation.

Myanmar and Thailand have reconnected in the 21st century. Thailand now relies on Myanmar for much of its gas supply (which is Thailand’s main source of electricity), labour force, and security needs, particularly with regards to drugs suppression. Without Myanmar’s cooperation, Thailand would face power blackouts, rising wages and a more menacing drugs scourge. For its part, Myanmar has shelved its nuclear weapons program and has gained from workers’ remittances, aid, loans, investment deals and capacity-building programs from Thailand.

Thailand also no longer officially supports its old ‘buffer’ policy of aiding, abetting and sheltering ethnic minorities such as the Shan and Karen. In fact, there is now a consensus in Thailand over its Myanmar policy. All Thai governments, whether under current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra or former opposition Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2008–11, have pursued cooperation and collaboration on all matters of bilateral trade and development with Myanmar. The same consensus is absent in Thai policy towards, for example, Cambodia.

The current big deal in Myanmar–Thai relations is the Dawei mega-project. The multi-billion-dollar deal began in 2008 when Thai construction conglomerate Ital-Thai Development was awarded a concession to develop 250 square kilometres of land centring on Dawei. The project has languished, but the Yingluck government now appears poised to undertake investments with public funds that may benefit ITD and re-invigorate the project. Yingluck’s brother and former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has also reportedly expressed an interest in investing in the Dawei project.

Myanmar’s authorities would do well not to repeat Cambodia’s mistake of taking sides in Thailand’s deeply divided society. Nay Pyi Taw’s dealings with Thailand should be multifaceted and inclusive. The same goes the other way. Thailand’s government should show good will and deal with Myanmar’s principal stakeholders in a comprehensive fashion. It should not favour any particular party or faction with vested economic and business interests in mind.

Mainland Southeast Asia connects Northeast, South and Southeast Asia, straddling more than 3 billion people. Alone it constitutes a sub-regional market of more than 350 million consumers when southern China and Vietnam are included. The Thai–Myanmar nexus is its centre of gravity. Ongoing infrastructure development on the mainland is increasingly connecting land routes in myriad directions, east–west and north–south. Borders erected during colonial times matter decreasingly as the flows and movements of goods, peoples, trade, investment, and overall development criss-cross the region. It is a sub-region being wooed, as in the Central Asian great game of the 19th century, by China as the resident superpower and the United States with its staying power, with Japan heavily invested and India as a civilisational cradle.

While Thailand is Myanmar’s corridor to ASEAN, Myanmar’s political awakening has turned mainland Southeast Asia into a beckoning and burgeoning region that will only expand in GDP terms, underpinned by abundant natural resources and growing transport and communications connectivity. The challenge in Thai–Myanmar relations and in mainland development will be politics, big and small.

The big politics will be how to keep a major-powers balance in mainland Southeast Asia, leveraging the United States, Japan, India and ASEAN on the one hand and China on the other. This region is China’s natural sphere of influence but it must be kept in check by other major powers to ensure that regional interests are kept in a workable and mutually beneficial mix. No major power should be allowed to dominate mainland Southeast Asia. Myanmar and Thailand can leverage the other major players to achieve this objective.

The small politics will be within. Notwithstanding shortcomings and setbacks, Myanmar’s democratic development must remain on track, while Thai democracy must consolidate and entrench beyond elections. In both countries, democratic institutions to promote checks and balances, participation, transparency and accountability are imperative. Myanmar and Thailand may be at different stages on different roads but their destinations are in the same vicinity.

While Myanmar currently captivates international attention, it is the Thai–Myanmar relationship and the strategic corridor it forms that could mould the shape of things to come on the mainland, with broader repercussions for the entire Asian landmass. Both countries will likely face tension and competition, but ultimately Myanmar and Thailand must find ways to grow together as they aim for democratic transition, social stability and sustained economic development.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. 

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