Analysts and ASEAN member states were alarmed when Thailand announced that it would host a meeting with Myanmar’s generals to “fully re-engage” the junta. First, the meeting went against a plan that member states had been following since April 2021 to exclude Myanmar’s generals from meetings.
It also meant that for the second year in a row, an ASEAN member state would engage in rogue or “cowboy” diplomacy with the junta, increasing its legitimacy and worse, creating a public relations spectacle, as with Cambodia’s Special Envoy at the time.
The meeting, which took place in Thailand on June 18 and 19, was held at the invitation of the soon-to-be departing Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. In his invitation, Don Pramudwinai mentioned the recent ASEAN Summit, which took place in Indonesia in May.
At that summit, ASEAN leaders reportedly promised to reengage at the highest levels. Pro-democracy stakeholders in Myanmar and regional partners like Singapore, whose Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said it “would be premature to re-engage with the junta at a summit level or even at a foreign minister level,” almost undiplomatically criticized the meetings.
After the talks failed, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that Thailand and Myanmar share more than 3,000 kilometers of land and sea borders and that the outcome would affect billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue between the two countries. Even bolder was the Thai Foreign Minister’s assertion that “none of the other ASEAN members care as much as us” and “Thailand is the only country that wants to find a solution.”
This is a clear insult to the collective efforts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, who lead the ASEAN bloc of nations that have rejected direct engagement with the junta in Myanmar.
However, Thailand cannot be so ignorant as to believe that other ASEAN nations do not comprehend Bangkok’s motives. Thailand has been accommodating to Myanmar’s military since Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was named the “adopted son” of Prem Tinsulanonda in 2012, long before the coup in February 2021.
These personal relationships between military generals on both sides began. When the leaders of the Thai military coup met with Gen. Min Aung Hliang in 2014, they received support from the Myanmar military and were told that it was the “army’s duty to safeguard national security.”
In regards to its rogue diplomacy, Singapore had already warned Thailand about engaging with Myanmar in April. However, it is common knowledge that Thai elites, who have intimate business relationships with Myanmar’s state-owned enterprises, have been concerned that a more aggressive posture on Myanmar by the potential Move Forward Party-led government, who has promised a different approach, would put Thailand’s state-owned oil and gas company, PTT, in jeopardy.
The junta of Gen. Min Aung Hliang receives more than $1.3 billion annually from PTT’s business. Second, when Tatmadaw forces steamroll innocent civilians or engage in fighting along Thailand’s porous borders, Thailand has a history of turning a blind eye. And when a Myanmar MiG-29 fighter jet crossed into Thai airspace last year to attack a target across the border, Prayut said it was “unintentional” because they “made a wide turn before breaching into Thailand’s territory just a bit and we have dispatched our fighter jets in response, which was in accordance with international standards.”
This was in conflict with the shocked reaction of Thailand’s Illustrious Flying corps, who officially fought the episode. While it is true that Thailand stands to lose a lot if its relationship with the junta in Myanmar deteriorates after a new government takes office, there are upsides to every downside.
A brutal regime that thrives on funding from regional governments like China, Russia, and Thailand may be denied crucial funding if contracts or agreements are renegotiated under a new government. ASEAN may be able to make progress on the Five Point Consensus if Thailand returns to support international sanctions and is willing to challenge the junta’s legitimacy.
Instead, the incoming leaders of Thailand, the majority of whom were still in charge of their own junta, once more embarrassed themselves on the international stage. The recent meetings in Thailand, to which just a few people, including China, went, were more about saving Thailand’s relationship with the junta before the new government took power. The minutes of the closed-door meetings could be made public by Thailand if it wanted to be more transparent in its diplomacy. Yet it will not.
When it comes to Myanmar, the Prayut government prefers to operate in the shadows, as the last nine years have demonstrated.