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China Looms Large Over Thailand's Move to Reengage With Myanmar Junta


Bangkok Thailand
Bangkok Thailand

WASHINGTON - A recent attempt by Thailand to reengage with Myanmar's junta appears to be aimed at creating an alignment with China, a close ally of the military regime in Myanmar, analysts said.

On June 19, the outgoing Thai government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who seized power in a 2014 military coup, hosted informal talks for foreign ministers from member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Myanmar's foreign minister, Than Swe, appointed by the military junta that seized power in February 2021, was among those who attended. Top diplomats from some other countries in the 10-member regional bloc, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, did not.

In August 2022, foreign ministers from ASEAN member states had agreed to bar Myanmar's ruling generals from the group's meetings until they made progress on the so-called Five-Point Consensus reached in April 2021 to end the violence that engulfed Myanmar after the coup.

Protests, a civil disobedience movement and fighting continue in Myanmar.

As China is currently the second-largest aid provider to the Myanmar junta after Russia, Beijing may want the junta to restore order to stabilize the China-Myanmar border and the pipelines running through Myanmar into China, according to Paul Chambers, lecturer and special adviser on international affairs at Naresuan University in Thailand.

Thailand, which is close to China diplomatically and geographically, has sought to take a similar stance, said Chambers.

"[The] Prayut government would want to include China in any ASEAN negotiations concerning Myanmar," he said.

Sek Sophal, a researcher at the Center for Democracy Promotion at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, said Thailand's military-backed government sees China as a key player in the Myanmar issue.

FILE - Myanmar nationals living in Thailand hold a picture of former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest marking the two-year anniversary of Myanmar's military takeover, in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 1, 2023.
FILE - Myanmar nationals living in Thailand hold a picture of former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest marking the two-year anniversary of Myanmar's military takeover, in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 1, 2023.

The Thai government has continued to engage with Myanmar on a "business as usual" basis and has done "very little" to put pressure on the junta, Sophal said.

When asked by VOA about the informal talks hosted by Thailand, the Chinese Embassy in Washington said they were not aware of the matter and referred the question to the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar or Thailand instead and received no reply.

The United States called on Myanmar to comply with the Five-Point Consensus.

"As the secretary noted, Burma's military regime has repeatedly carried out horrific, and extensive violence against the people of Burma since the February 2021 military coup," a State Department spokesperson said last week in an email to VOA.

"We recognize and continue to welcome ASEAN's efforts to address the crisis in Burma. Given the regime's lack of progress on the Five-Point Consensus, we call on ASEAN members to hold Burma accountable for its actions," the spokesperson said.

The U.S. Treasury Department last week imposed sanctions on Myanmar's Defense Ministry and two state-owned banks, the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank and the Myanmar Investment and Commercial Bank.

The measure freezes any assets of the sanctioned entities that are in the U.S. or controlled by a U.S. person. It also prohibits all transactions by U.S. persons or entities carried out within or transiting the U.S. that the targeted entities would benefit from.

Chambers said that the U.S. could use its sanctions against Myanmar's junta and work with its ASEAN opponents, such as Indonesia, to slow down Bangkok's current cooperation with the junta.

"The U.S. is aware that Thailand has, since at least 2013, followed a realist policy of hedging or 'creating balance' between Beijing and Washington," he said.

After more than nine years of China-leaning rule under Prayuth, a surprise win by the Move Forward Party in the May 14 elections means Thailand is slated to have a new government installed in July, according to parliamentary procedure.

Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat talks to the media in Bangkok on June 27, 2023.
Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat talks to the media in Bangkok on June 27, 2023.

Pita Limjaroenrat, who leads the left-leaning, progressive Move Forward Party, is the front-runner to become Thailand's next premier. He has been vocal about how he would shift Thailand's foreign policy direction, including its stance on Myanmar.

"A stable Myanmar is a boon to the entire region, but if Myanmar sneezes, Thailand gets sick as well," Pita told VOA's Thai Service during an interview in April.

Educated at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pita is known to have a natural affinity for the U.S.

Analysts, however, say the Thai politician has to walk a fine line to engage constructively with China, given its economic clout and growing influence in Thailand's foreign policy.

"Thailand might have to continue to bandwagon with China for its economic interests," although Thailand has reset its foreign policy to work with the U.S.-led Western countries, said Sophal.

Chambers said a Pita-led Thailand would distance itself from China, work closely with Washington, and cease cooperating with the Myanmar junta.

Jiha Ham and Christy Lee of VOA's Korean Service contributed to this report.

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