Fri 30 May 2014
Filed under: ASEAN,Opinion
The recent coup in Southeast Asia’s second largest economy has ramifications beyond Thailand. The political unraveling is not happening in a vacuum, and its evolution and global reactions to it could present an unfortunate model for emerging democracies in the region, particularly Myanmar. All Myanmar players–the government, political opposition, civil society, and the military–almost certainly are watching the events unfolding in Thailand closely, potentially seeing their future, or hopefully, the opposite of it. The next few years will be a critical test for Myanmar’s political development to determine whether the country is progressing toward a representative democracy or susceptible to backsliding similar to the situation in Thailand.
Myanmar has a front row seat–literally, television stations now controlled by the Thai military are broadcast into Myanmar–to ongoing military machinations. As ASEAN Chair, Myanmar must address this issue, and as Thailand’s neighbor, it cannot ignore what is happening. At the time of this writing, the Myanmar government has been fairly mute on the situation. Following the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting, Lieutenant-General Wai Lwin stated, “I believe our country will not succumb to the same troubles seen in Thailand.” It is worth noting that the Myanmar constitution contains provisions similar to Thailand’s for declaration of martial law and military control. A parliamentarian from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, Hla Swe, contended “generally, a coup is not good.” Myanmar’s political opposition and members of civil society condemned the events, recognizing their country’s own history–Myanmar has experienced two coups since 1962 that resulted in 49 years of military rule.
Given Myanmar’s not-so-distant past and Thailand’s current turmoil, the Myanmar elections in 2015 take on more significance. There is a real trust deficit on electoral transparency in both countries. In 1990, Myanmar’s State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) allowed for a multi-party parliamentary election; when the political party it backed lost, the SLORC refused to recognize the results, protests ensued, and the country was subject to 21 more years of military rule. Thailand’s recent troubles center around former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who built a strong political base with populist policies that appealed to rural villagers in Thailand’s north, but was removed in Thailand’s last official coup in 2006. Since his ouster, the Thai government has been ruled by a succession of ministers from Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party (PTP) or the opposition Democrat Party, all of which faced widespread demonstrations by the other camp. While many contend that PTP victories were tainted by corruption, the fact remains that elected candidates in Thailand continue to be ousted via protest, judicial coup, or military coup, locking the country into a vicious cycle. To break out, there must be an acceptance that there will be winners and losers, but also confidence in the election process and institutions governing it. Transparency, above all, is critical. For Myanmar, the 2015 election and its conclusion must be free and fair, and the results of a free and fair election must be accepted.
Obviously, a coup can stem or reverse economic growth, something that Myanmar cannot afford. Military rule left Myanmar grossly underdeveloped and struggling to catch up with its neighbors. The Thai economy had been relatively resistant to political intrigue; however, these last months of unrest may have tipped the economy toward recession. Thailand’s state planning agency has cut its growth outlook for 2014, forecasting an expansion between 1.5% to 2.5%, lower from a previous estimate of 3 to 4%. Additionally, foreign businesses are considering cutting or delaying further investment. Thailand’s vital manufacturing and auto industries have been hit particularly hard; the sector cut more than 30,000 subcontracted workers this year and slashed production. Perhaps the most visible sign is Thailand’s tourism industry. Occupancy rates at hotels have dropped to as low as 45% from the usual average of 90%. Myanmar is slowly emerging as an attractive foreign investment destination but any similar political turmoil or visible signs of backsliding will almost certainly cool investor enthusiasm. Myanmar must demonstrate clearly that it is committed to its political and economic transition, offering an improving and stable environment for foreign engagement.
A return by Myanmar to military dictatorship will almost certainly undo the international goodwill it has earned since its transition beginning in 2011. Global condemnation has grown as the Thai military’s imposition of martial law became a full coup. Several countries have issued travel warnings including the U.S., Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Major Western countries condemned the coup including France, the European Union, and the U.N. human rights office. For the U.S., a country with vital strategic interests in Thailand–including one its largest embassies and joint regional security and peacekeeping initiatives–a definitive coup forces its hand to suspend or limit bilateral assistance. The U.S. announced the suspension $3.5 million in military aid and a review of a further $7 million in direct assistance. Additionally, the U.S. canceled a joint military exercise and a visit from a senior officer, and rescinded an invite to a Thai general to PACOM. U.S. action in this case, as Myanmar is aware, shows that such actions have consequences, no matter the nature of the partnership or the strategic interests of the parties. For Myanmar, all of the underlying authorities governing sanctions programs remain in place meaning that any sanctions that has been eased could easily be reimposed.
Thailand is, or perhaps was, a leading member of ASEAN, but has become a poor example to follow. Its internally complacent attitude towards it “coup culture” does not take into account the influence it has on broader regional political and economic developments, including on its neighbors. For Myanmar, this should be a lesson in what not to do as it embarks of the next and critical stages of its political transition.