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Washington and its partners must support Thailand and Myanmar in their economic and political development. If the US does not take a more positive and proactive stance, it risks ceding the opportunity to China.

Thailand and Myanmar: Military Governments Do Not Change Stripes Overnight

October 22nd, 2017

By Davis Florick – Senior Fellow

Over the last five decades, military establishments in Bangkok and Yangon have played leading roles in their states’ respective political processes. Particularly in the last few years, there has been hope both internally and externally that both nations’ democratic institutions will push the militaries out of governance. After becoming Prime Minister of Thailand in 2011, Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra seemed poised to unite northern and southern Thailand, thereby reducing the need for the military in internal affairs; but was impeached on corruption charges. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won Myanmar’s most fair election in history, and brought an end to five decades of military rule. Despite her victory, however, the military has retained sufficient political control to pursue its core security issues. Foreign governments and other interest groups have been severely disappointed by the continued prominence of the militaries in both states. Yet, it would be wrong to lose hope entirely. Both states are developing a competent middle class, and US assistance can help set the conditions for democratic reforms. Although it will take time to erode military control, the move toward civilian leadership can continue, albeit with patience from both internal and external parties.

The involvement of Thailand’s military in political affairs has been predominately motivated by the state’s north-south demographic divide. The north is largely agrarian, is more populated, and has ethnic links to China. In contrast, the south is more urban and has developed an identity that leans more toward the US. The Thai military and bureaucratic elites have traditionally been drawn from the south; however, the north’s population advantage poses a threat to the south, and these tensions have been present for decades. In 1932, the military took power. Particularly after World War Two, Chinese-supported insurgencies throughout the region raised concerns among Thai officials that its northern territory might be ripe for revolt. This concern precluded the introduction of democratic institutions and elections until 1992. Once the military allowed free elections, northern electoral victories were inevitable due to population numbers. The north’s emergence occurred in 2001 with Thaksin Shinawatra’s becoming the Prime Minister. Predictably, he began to lean closer to China, which led to a military coup in 2006. Likewise, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed by the Supreme Court, with the military’s encouragement, in 2014. Thus, despite interludes of civilian leadership, Thailand has been dominated by military governments for the better part of eighty-five years.

Myanmar’s political history since the mid-twentieth century has been heavily influenced by military dictatorship. In 1962, the military, led by General Ne Win, took power. While Thailand’s military favored the US, Myanmar’s officers supported socialist ideals and leaned toward China. For nearly fifty years, the military controlled Yangon’s political process while retaining close ties with Beijing. However, the partnership with China severely constricted Myanmar’s economic growth which in turn hindered its ability to keep pace with other states in the region. Thus, political reform became a prerequisite to reinvigorating the economy. Parliamentary elections in 2012 and national elections in 2015 saw the emergence of opposition parties, particularly the NLD. Led by the famous political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD won the 2015 election. Subsequently, power was transitioned peacefully, something which masked deep flaws in the 2008 constitution that gave the military control of the defense, border affairs, and home affairs ministries. Moreover, the constitution ensured that twenty-five percent of parliament would be non-elected military officials. Because constitutional revisions require seventy-five percent approval by parliament, the chosen threshold for military representation appears intended to obstruct further reforms. Consequently, Myanmar’s positive moves toward democracy are not without challenges.

In both cases, the incumbent regime is at a crossroads complicated by regional competition between the US and China. In Bangkok and Yangon, the military has stalled democratic development. Simultaneously, a combination of perceived democratic progress, or lack thereof, and the involvement of external powers have compounded matters. On one hand, to the outside world the removal of Yingluck Shinawatra and the emergence of a military government symbolizes the withdrawal of democratic institutions. The US has responded by curtailing some of its cooperative activities with Thailand, including financial assistance. To some extent, Beijing has been able to fill the void left by Washington. On the other hand, despite military involvement to the contrary, for the sake of appearances Yangon still seems to be inching toward further democratic institutional development. Despite military involvement in both states, the appearance of democratization in Myanmar has led the US to support Yangon disproportionately to its support of Bangkok.

Washington’s willingness to punish the military government in Bangkok has inadvertently pushed Thailand closer to China. Likewise, current US policy toward Myanmar has allowed the military to remain in a position of influence without significant costs. Thus, although the military establishments in Bangkok and Yangon have both become entrenched, Washington’s opposition has had disproportionately negative consequences for its ally Thailand. In light of the competition with China, the US approach to Thailand and Myanmar has weakened its own standing in Southeast Asia.

Despite the challenges to democratic development, Bangkok and Yangon have opportunities for continuing reform. In Thailand, the challenge is largely driven by the perception of a north-south economic and cultural divide. While southern Thailand produces many of the senior military and bureaucratic officials, it has been unable to cultivate political candidates capable of addressing the needs of northern voters. In the place of viable candidates, the Shinawatra family claimed leadership through dubious economic policies intended to create welfare dependencies. Today, the military junta has senior leadership positions. Yet, political parties still exist and can continue to develop at lower levels of government. Encouraging the maturation of political parties may help Thailand overcome the populist tactics of the early twenty-first century. Such a role for the military occurred in South Korea under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan and in Taiwan under Chiang Ching-kuo. Bangkok could duplicate Seoul and Taipei’s successes.

In Myanmar, the major obstacles to democratic reform are ethnic and sectarian violence and the risks that military officials will be targeted after forfeiting power. The current violence being committed against the Rakhine minority in western Myanmar is the most recent in a long line of internal conflicts. The British empire pieced Myanmar together during the late nineteenth century, unifying approximately one hundred and thirty distinct communities. Yangon’s post-independence political failings and external support to its opposition movements have denied Myanmar the chance for national reconciliation. For the security establishment, fears over insurgencies encourage a strong, central government. Furthermore, the post-Cold War era is replete with the members of authoritarian regimes suffering harsh fates after falling from power. Fears that the NLD and other political entities, members of which suffered as political prisoners, will turn on the military once it loses power have undoubtedly contributed to the current situation. Reconciling both demographic tensions and the fate of military officials will be crucial if Myanmar is to become more democratic.

The US can play an important and positive role in the democratic development of both Thailand and Myanmar. To keep pace with their competitors in Southeast Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific region, Bangkok and Yangon need economic and security partners so that both states can pursue mutually-beneficial market opportunities while avoiding crippling defense spending. Washington and its vast network of regional partners can provide such assistance. Thailand and Myanmar would benefit from engagement opportunities with states like Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea. The alternative to US support is for these two states to turn toward China. Cooperation with Beijing would give the Xi Administration a valuable foothold on the overland and maritime routes linking East and South Asia, and China would be in a stronger position to project power across Eurasia. Clearly, then, the US and its partners need to act decisively to obtain opportunities to improve Thailand’s and Myanmar’s prospects while working on the democratic institutions in both states: The result of inaction will be China’s growing dominance in the region.

Thailand and Myanmar are each at political crossroads. Military establishments in Bangkok and Yangon appear unwilling to allow democratic processes to run their course. As a result, the political institutions in both are paralyzed. Yet, neither Thailand nor Myanmar is in an untenable position. For each state, the economic success of Southeast Asia has raised standards of living and increased the flow of information. This is allowing for the steady emergence of middle-class societies that can better influence political processes. More importantly, the current delay in democratic reforms is providing parties in both states with a chance to refine their platforms. Over the long-term, there is a considerable need to change the appeal for parties in Thailand and Myanmar from a focus on ethnic and religious differences to an issue-based approach. As this shift occurs, political parties will be in a better position to determine the fates of Bangkok and Yangon. Washington and its partners must also support Thailand and Myanmar in their economic and political development. If the US does not take a more positive and proactive stance, it risks ceding the opportunity to China.


Image: Thai soldiers stand guard following the country’s 2014 military coup (Source: Takeaway/Wikimedia)

About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Senior Fellow in the HSC Security and Defence division, a Special Assistant to the United States Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and a James A. Kelly non-resident fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has completed his Executive MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, holds a master’s in East-West Studies at Creighton University, and will be starting his PhD in International Relations at George Mason University in Fall, 2018. His foreign relations areas of concentration include East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union. Davis has been published in International Affairs Forum, the World Business Institute, and the International Affairs Review, the Diplomat and RealClearDefense. He was also a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.