Friday, February 18, 2011

Thailand's Silence on Burma Poll is Deafening

Op-ed ของผมในหนังสือพิมพ์ Bangkok Post เกี่ยวกับท่าทีของรัฐบาลไทยต่อการเลือกตั้งทั่วไปในพม่า ตีพิมพ์วันที่ 8 พฤศจิกายน 2553

Thai and foreign media held their breath when Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva made his first official trip to Burma just weeks before the country's first elections in 20 years. The visit turned out to be nothing more than a business trip, with the prime minister showing far more interest in inking a US$13 billion (390 billion baht) deep-sea port investment deal in Dawei, formerly Tavoy, than in discussing the upcoming elections.

Mr Abhisit's silence at this crucial time only assists the junta's efforts to legitimise ongoing military rule under a new "civilian" guise. It would be naive to think the Thai government was unaware of the consequences of its own policy. In fact, in its silence, Thailand is joined by China, India, and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations who regardless of election-day ballot-stuffing, see these elections as a golden opportunity to justify increased trade and investment with their resource-rich neighbour.

There are two possible reasons for the Thai government's silence, one being its own tenuous position since the crackdown on red shirt protests earlier this year. Since May, Mr Abhisit has faced intense criticism for the 92 casualties of mostly unarmed civilians, putting him in a tough position to call for human rights, freedom of expression, and the release of political prisoners in Burma. The other more significant reason for Thailand's "golden" silence on Burma's politics is that it remains Burma's top trade and investment partner.

By putting short-term business interests first, Thai policy is not only destructive for Burma's people, but shortsighted for Thailand as well. In fact, the Yadana natural gas pipeline, in which PTTEP holds a large stake, has already proven to be one of the Burma regime's largest sources of income, and continues to be linked to killings and forced labour committed by the Burmese army, which provides pipeline security. Many villagers in the ethnic Karen areas surrounding the pipeline have been forcibly displaced, some joining the 2-3 millions of refugees and migrants who find a safe haven in Thailand. Local people rarely see the benefits of these so-called development projects, and in some cases such aggrieved populations have targeted international investments to express their discontent _ take for example the multiple bombings of China's dam in Kachin state in April.

Expected clashes between the Burmese army and ethnic armies that refused to give up their arms before the election will only contribute to instability along the border. By putting business ahead of politics, Thailand is not only contributing to Burma's threat to regional peace and stability but putting its own investments at risk.

In the run up to Burma's elections, democratic governments have responded in two main ways, with some boldly stating that the elections will in no way be free or fair, and others taking a "wait and see" approach. Thailand, on the other hand, has already sent clear signals through Mr Abhisit's business trip that it is willing to accept these elections as democratic progress, even if that couldn't be further from the truth.

During the Asean summit in Hanoi last month, the only regional governments daring to criticise the blatant election problems were Indonesia and the Philippines. By not speaking out while its more democratic neighbours do, Thailand has further proven that it is quickly losing its ground as a positive democratic force in the region.

If the Thai government wants to move beyond its shortsighted Burma policy, there are two things it can do. First, it can join critical voices inside and outside of Burma who understand that undemocratic elections without reconciliation will not lead to peace and stability. Second, as sitting president of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Thailand can join the global call for a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity. Such crimes will only increase post-election when the regime is likely to consolidate its power through attacks against ethnic armed groups. Despite Thailand's obvious stake in all of this, and its potential influence as Burma's neighbour and biggest investor, there is little promise that it will do either.

My coauthor, Emily Hong is a writer and advocate working to support Burma's democracy and ethnic rights movement. She is a contributor to the forthcoming book Nowhere to Be Home: Narrators from Survivors of Burma's Military Regime.

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