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Thailand withers as Myanmar rises

Last Thursday while Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his residence and urging Japan to invest in the mega-project in Dawei, there were news headlines in Myanmar that Abe would be visiting Yangon the next day - offering loads of financial assistance and long-term economic development plans worth nearly US$1 billion. Both Japan and Myanmar have the Thilawa port in mind, not the proposed Dawei development plan, for the time being.

Earlier in the same week in the US, President Thein Sein of Myanmar was tete-a-tete with President Barack Obama at the White House. The meeting was followed by the signing of a trade and investment framework agreement to boost their bilateral trade and economic dialogue and cooperation — something which Thailand, the Americans' oldest ally in the region, has not yet done.

By the way, Yingluck has not officially visited the White House either. And should we forget, Thailand and the US are celebrating their 180-year-old relationship on Wednesday at the Foreign Ministry with a reception, photo exhibition and some cultural performances. It was a much scaled-down version of the grand celebration discussed last year.

There is a strong sense of let-down in Thailand as Myanmar rises with all kinds of optimism. Now Thein Sein is known in the US as "the icon of reform", while "the icon of democracy" is the label given to opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, by the US president during her visit to Washington earlier. Indeed, both Thein Sein and Suu Kyi are working together to upgrade their country's profile and have earned rapid international recognition.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Surapong Towichakchaikul visited Washington DC and met with new US State Secretary John Kerry in early May. There was a short two-paragraph press release about their meeting, which was supposed to be a strategic dialogue. No details were given, even when Kerry said the two countries would work out plans for the next 180 years.

Thailand used to be at the centre of foreign policy initiatives emanating from Japan and the US concerning this part of the world. Those days are gone. Now, the Land of Smiles is being replaced by Myanmar. During the Bush administration, Myanmar was named as one of three members in the "axis of evil". Now, 20 months after the initial reforms, the country has become the most sought after by the major powers and regional groupings, particularly the EU. Myanmar is so popular that some Western countries are loosening up their judgement on human rights and governance issues, revealing their hypocrisy to the bones.

For instance, the plight of the Rohingyas is no longer in the news even though they continue to suffer and their future remains in limbo. The culprits are still out there. The most interesting aspect is how Thailand is now under close scrutiny for its treatment of the Rohingyas who have been stranded in the country for the past 10 months. Thai authorities are not very happy with the criticism waged by the West. The six-month visa extension period will soon have expired and Bangkok is facing a huge dilemma whether to expel the refugees or prolong their stay as no third country has come forward to resettle them.

Diplomats and businessmen interviewed by the author in Yangon recently shared two similar assessments of Myanmar. First, Myanmar is serious about its ongoing reforms in both political and economic areas. They concluded the reforms there will move ahead and accelerate after Thein Sein's visit to the US.

Second, they like to deal with officials and the private sector in Myanmar, as the people know exactly what they want. As a late-comer, Myanmar wants to maximise the existing window of opportunity. In contrast, Thailand is still stuck in a vicious cycle of colour politics and efforts to bring Thaksin Shinawatra home. The game of tussle will continue.

After the end of World War II, Thailand was seen as a bulwark against its communist neighbours - until the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Since then, Thailand's strategic imperatives have receded to the point of insignificance. After the pronouncement of the US re-balancing policy in November 2011, which Thailand welcomed, Bangkok and Washington are hard at work to revive defence and security cooperation under their alliance. Yet somehow, a sense of disconnectedness still prevails between the two capitals. Other neighbouring countries have easily adjusted to the new realignment.

Myanmar indicated to the US three years ago it wanted to distance itself from China and cultivate diversified relations with other major countries such as the EU, India and Japan. As part of such a diversion, Naypyidaw was willing to do whatever it took to reach a level of trust and comfort with the West — release political prisoners, cease its meddling with missiles and nuclear projects from North Korea, continue dialogue and reconciliation with minority groups, among others. Miraculously, it took exactly two years for President Thein Sein to reach the White House.

From now on, Myanmar will feature in the overall US strategic blueprint for Southeast Asia. Under this security umbrella, the US will continue to engage with Myanmar and to strengthen its relations, especially security and military education, to a new level. Despite ongoing human violations in ethnic areas and other oppressive activities, Washington would be willing to lower its critical voice as it did in the past with friends in Latin America. Given the new strategic landscape in Southeast Asia, Myanmar will have wider room to breathe and to consolidate its position in the region and global arena vis-a-vis the ongoing conflict with the armed ethnic groups at home.

At this juncture, Thailand has to wake up to the harsh reality that the US, despite diplomatic pleasantries, is no longer playing the waiting game it used to. With the rise of China and diplomatic commitments that come with it, Washington does not favour Bangkok's approach. The impression among US policy-makers and academics is persistently strong that Thailand is a pro-China country. So, it is difficult to have a genuine alliance with Thailand under the new security environment. Other remaining US allies in the region — Australia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines—do not have such a problem. The Foreign Ministry often reiterates that it has never chosen any side, particularly between the US and China - but in the real diplomatic world, day-to-day actions speak louder than words. Thailand has leaned toward China for all good and practical reasons.

Unless there are substantive changes in the Foreign Ministry's top echelon and some basic diplomatic tenets, the country's foreign policy related to major powers will be further undermined. Therefore, Thailand will not be a regional catalyst as it so wishes, given its unique location in continental Southeast Asia. Its long envisaged role as the hub of Asean Connect-ivity will not be realised. As it stands today and in the foreseeable future, Myanmar is a better alternative, despite its shortcomings.


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