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WEDNESDAY, December 06, 2023

Assessing Thailand's Pursuit of Myanmar: Analysing Asean Approaches and Potential Threats

Assessing Thailand's Pursuit of Myanmar: Analysing Asean Approaches and Potential Threats
WEDNESDAY, September 27, 2023

While ongoing political turmoil and human rights violations are unfolding in Myanmar, which has become a focal point of international concern, Thailand, as a prominent member of Asean, plays a crucial role in addressing the crisis and fostering stability in the region.

The  Asean community is grounded in principles of non-interference in domestic affairs, and this has been the cornerstone of its response to Myanmar's challenges. While critics argue for a more proactive stance,  Asean's approach has been rooted in the belief that constructive engagement and dialogue are the most effective means to influence positive change within its member states. Thailand's adherence to these principles aligns with Asean's core values of respecting sovereignty and non-interference. However, this does not imply passive acceptance of Myanmar's current situation.

As an integral part of  Asean, Thailand has the potential to leverage its position to advocate for more robust mechanisms aimed at achieving lasting peace and reconciliation in Myanmar. The trade relationship, particularly in natural gas, adds complexity to Thailand's role. Some propose using economic leverage as a means to pressure Myanmar's military junta into adopting peaceful reforms. Yet, striking the right balance between economic interests and promoting peace and human rights remains a challenge. As Thailand navigates this intricate landscape, it must consider its national interests in stability, security, and economic cooperation. Additionally, border security concerns stemming from Myanmar's instability underscore the legitimacy of Thailand's desire for a peaceful and stable neighbour. Thailand's engagement with Myanmar, both diplomatically and economically, reflects its multifaceted approach aimed at facilitating dialogue and reconciliation while protecting its own interests and the broader principles of Asean.

Asean's role in mediating the Myanmar peace process, grounded in the principles of non-interference in domestic affairs, has come under criticism for its response to the Myanmar crisis. There are arguments advocating for the organisation to play a more proactive role in mediating the conflict. However, it is essential to first understand  Asean's approach before evaluating Thailand's compliance.

Furthermore, Asean's response to Myanmar's ongoing political turmoil has been shaped by its non-interference principle, which influences the organisation's position regarding the internal affairs of its member states. This approach is founded on the belief that constructive engagement, rather than confrontation, offers the most effective means to drive change. Consequently, Asean's mechanisms for addressing the Myanmar crisis have predominantly revolved around dialogue and diplomatic efforts.

As an Asean member, Thailand should remain committed to the organisation's mechanisms for addressing the Myanmar crisis. This commitment aligns with the fundamental principles and values that underpin Asean's foundation, such as respect for sovereignty and non-interference. Nevertheless, it's crucial to clarify that adherence to these principles should not be misinterpreted as passive acceptance of the current situation in Myanmar.

Thailand can leverage its position within Asean to advocate for more robust mechanisms aimed at achieving peace and reconciliation in Myanmar. It should encourage greater dialogue and cooperation among Asean member states to address the crisis effectively. While some may argue for more forceful intervention, such as sanctions or military action, these approaches can be counterproductive and exacerbate the situation.

The significant natural gas trade between Thailand and Myanmar indeed adds a layer of complexity to the situation. Thailand relies on Myanmar as a key source of natural gas, which contributes to its energy security and economic stability. This trade creates a financial interdependence between the two countries, making it a potential lever for influencing Myanmar's military junta's behaviour.

Advocates for using economic leverage argue that Thailand could exert pressure on Myanmar by threatening to reduce or halt natural gas imports unless the junta initiates peaceful reforms. This strategy has been employed in various international conflicts as a means of applying economic pressure to induce political change. However, it's essential to approach this issue with caution. Economic sanctions, particularly when targeted at essential resources like natural gas, can have severe humanitarian consequences and harm the civilian population. A careful balance must be struck between economic interests and the promotion of peace and human rights.

When assessing whether Thailand poses a threat to Myanmar's peace requires examining its actions and policies in the context of the crisis. Thailand's approach to Myanmar has been primarily characterised by a desire for stability along its border and the preservation of economic interests. Thailand shares a long border with Myanmar, and instability in Myanmar can have spillover effects, including an influx of refugees and potential security threats. Thailand's efforts to manage its border security are driven by legitimate concerns for its own stability.

The substantial trade ties between Myanmar and Thailand, particularly in the realm of natural gas, carry significant economic implications. While there is a valid argument for Thailand to employ this economic leverage as a tool for fostering change in Myanmar, it is crucial to bear in mind the potential adverse consequences such actions might inflict on ordinary Myanmar citizens who are already enduring hardship and suffering.

Thailand has engaged diplomatically with Myanmar, participating in Asean discussions and dialogues. While critics may argue that this engagement is insufficient, it reflects a diplomatic approach that prioritises dialogue and peaceful resolution over confrontation.

The involvement of Thailand in Asean discussions is consistent with the organisation's core principles, particularly the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. This principle has long been a cornerstone of Asean's identity and guides its approach to conflicts within its member states. Thailand, as a responsible  Asean member, respects Myanmar's sovereignty by adhering to this principle.

Significantly, Thailand's emphasis on dialogue and peaceful resolution aligns with Asean's overall approach to conflict resolution. The organisation has historically believed that constructive engagement and diplomatic efforts are more effective than confrontation in influencing positive change within its member states. Therefore, Thailand's diplomatic engagement reflects a commitment to promoting dialogue and reconciliation as a means to address the Myanmar crisis.

Furthermore, it's crucial to recognise that Thailand, like other Asean members, must navigate a complex web of national interests. While it supports dialogue and peaceful resolution, it also considers its own national interests, which include border security and economic stability. Instability in Myanmar can lead to spillover effects, such as an influx of refugees and potential security threats along the border. Thailand's diplomatic approach seeks to balance these national interests while adhering to Asean's principles.

However, it's important to note that national interests can evolve over time, and they don't necessarily equate to an alliance in the traditional sense. Thailand, like other countries, engages with Myanmar based on a complex set of considerations that balance its national interests with regional stability and international norms, including respect for human rights.

Overall, Thailand's role within Asean amid the ongoing crisis in Myanmar highlights the delicate balance it must strike between safeguarding its national interests and upholding the principles of the regional organisation. The Asean community, grounded in the principles of non-interference, has maintained a diplomatic and constructive engagement approach to addressing the challenges in Myanmar. Thailand's alignment with these principles reflects its commitment to respecting sovereignty and non-interference while actively participating in diplomatic efforts.

Thailand's multifaceted approach, rooted in the pursuit of border security and economic stability, underscores the complexity of its role in the Myanmar crisis. Its economic ties with Myanmar, particularly in the natural gas trade, pose both opportunities and challenges. While some advocate for using economic leverage as a means to influence change in Myanmar, it is imperative to consider the potential humanitarian repercussions and the delicate balance between economic interests and the promotion of peace and human rights.

Therefore, Thailand's engagement in Myanmar underscores the nuanced and intricate nature of international diplomacy, where a member state of a regional organisation must navigate a myriad of interests while seeking to contribute positively to the resolution of a complex and deeply concerning situation. As the crisis in Myanmar unfolds, Thailand's role within Asean will continue to be closely watched, emphasising the importance of diplomacy, dialogue, and a balanced approach in fostering lasting peace and reconciliation in the region.

Prem Singh Gill is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University