At a briefing in Yangon last Monday, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi expressed appreciation for Thailand’s efforts and understanding of the situation in Rakhine State. She also thanked her eastern neighbour for its ongoing assistance there.
Such a reaction would not have been possible if Thai-Myanmar relations had not improved dramatically over the past few years.
Her historic visit here in July further cemented the often-troubled bilateral relations, which have included numerous wars throughout their centuries of rivalry. According to a senior Thai security official, current Thai-Myanmar relations are better than ever before (dee tee sud tee kaei mi ma). The latest assessment came from a recent week-long visit by the National Security Council to Myanmar and border areas.
After the Rakhine conflict made global news headlines, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the problem was an internal affair for Myanmar. His position came in contrast to that of Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Najib Razak, who chose to shame Suu Kyi and question the way she handled the ongoing crisis.
Not long after Najib’s harsh criticism, Suu Kyi decided to host a retreat for her colleagues to explain developments in the troubled northwestern region. It was an extraordinary event – the first time an Asean member initiated an official briefing on an internal conflict. Her 55-minute “frank and forthright” evaluation of the Rakhine – including candid references to the role of the Tatmadaw (military forces) and international organisations – greatly impressed her colleagues. She promised to update Asean leaders on developments there.
At this juncture, Suu Kyi has not yet asked for full-scale Asean involvement. Obviously, she would rather engage Asean in ways where she has overall control. The fact that Nay Pyi Taw insisted on labelling the briefing as a “retreat” was a barometer of her political instinct and diplomatic finesse. In the press release, she made two pivotal points. First, her government needed time and space for its efforts to bear fruit. Second, she emphasised the importance of strengthening Asean unity and resolving the differences among Asean family members through peaceful and friendly consultation.
As such, she wanted to keep this sensitive issue within the region. The Muslim-majority Asean is under pressure from the international community, especially the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to take up the issue. The OIC is scheduled to hold a special session to discuss the crisis next month.
Normally, a retreat is organised by an Asean chair at various levels – senior officials, foreign ministers and leaders, ahead of official meetings – to go over sensitive matters that members want to raise for informal discussion and to avoid misunderstandings. The Yangon retreat had already broken new ground in longstanding Asean practice, given it was a discussion about an unfolding emergency.
In retrospect, former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid was the group’s first leader to break away from the Asean principle of non-interference, during the 3rd informal Asean summit in Manila in November 1999. Recognising his Asean colleagues’ growing concerns over political developments in Timor Leste and Aceh at that time, he volunteered to give a formal briefing on both situations to quell their anxieties.
Since then, selective Asean leaders have become more open in bringing up internal issues at subsequent summits. After Myanmar joined Asean in 1977, the military-run regime was hard pressed by Asean to provide much-needed information on the secretive country. It was not until 2003 that Nay Pyi Taw had the confidence to reveal the implementation of a 7-point peace roadmap, which was successfully implemented with the election in November 2015 that ushered in the National League of Democracy government of today.
During the recent retreat, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman read out a 1,737-word statement on his country’s position on the Rakhine. He also put forward two proposals – having Asean coordinate humanitarian aid and setting up an independent expert group to investigate conditions there. It was unlikely these proposals would receive backing from Suu Kyi or other Asean members.
For the time being, kudos must also go to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who has served as an honest broker. Jakarta has politely declined to collaborate with Malaysia’s call to show solidarity as the world’s largest Muslim country, knowing full well that it could polarise Asean. Retno demonstrated her leadership by persuading Myanmar to be more open and transparent about the situation in the Rakhine. Her position was clear that Asean should not get involved in the region unless Myanmar invites the group to help. Now, it is hoped that the Yangon retreat will help recalibrate the group’s broader engagement in the troubled area.
During the Timor Leste crisis, Indonesia asked Asean for help in contributing troops to the UN-sponsored peacekeeping mission from 1999-2002. Only individual Asean members – Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia – took part. Collectively Asean was not ready.
At the retreat, following Suu Kyi’s briefing, Thailand immediately provided US$200,000 (Bt7.2 million) worth of humanitarian aid to Myanmar for displaced people in Rakhine State. In previous years, Thailand has provided other capacity development projects there through its embassy in Yangon. Likewise, humanitarian assistance from individual Asean members will be allowed in due course, as Suu Kyi expressed her country’s readiness at the briefing to grant necessary humanitarian access to the western state.
Of late, Thai and Myanmar authorities have apprehended several local human traffickers and their trawlers operating near coastal towns in the Andaman Sea, disrupting the flow of Rohingya from both Myanmar and Bangladesh. Thai and Myanmar security forces, especially the navy, have intensified their cooperation in intelligence exchanges, as well as identity checks.
Apart from the Rakhine crisis, Thailand and Myanmar have intensified their cooperation in repatriating refugees from Myanmar who have been living along the border for three decades. As the peace and national reconciliation process continues in Myanmar, the hope is that more and more refugees will return home of their own free will.
In October, a total of 71 refugees from Nu Po and Tham Hin camps were repatriated to Myanmar with help from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Huge challenges remain to ensure that the returnees are properly resettled and taken care of. The orderly repatriation was a milestone in bilateral ties after intense conflicts since the 1980s, which swept an influx of several hundred thousand refugees across the border.
As Myanmar moves forward with economic and democratic development, there are high hopes the ongoing peace process will proceed to end the half-century of fighting with ethnic armed groups. This prospect of peace would enable more refugees to return home. At the moment, about 100,000 refugees are living in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.
The repatriation in October was considered a cause for celebration for some, given the gloomy refugee crises elsewhere around the globe. New UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is planning to visit Thailand and the Mae La camp in the first half of next year. When he served as chief of UNHCR (2005-2015), he expressed the wish during a visit there in August 2006 that Myanmar refugees would one day be able to return home.
More consolidated Thai-Myanmar relations will further strengthen Asean unity. As the Suu Kyi retreat has demonstrated, Asean is moving toward a new trajectory that could gradually replace the usual ad-hoc approach, which characterised the group’s collective behaviour in the past.