It was the coup Myanmar was least expecting, and it came with a sense of eerie familiarity. Dealing with its own emergence from five decades of military dictatorship, seemingly intractable ethnic violence and political protests of its own, Myanmar had long looked to Thailand as a relatively successful, stable and democratic neighbour.
That changed 10 days ago when Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha suspended the Thai constitution and assumed power, ushered in restrictions on journalists and news reporting, detained political figures and began a shake-up of the bureaucracy and police force. Even the word “junta” — for so long associated with the clique of generals who ruled Myanmar after the 1988 crackdown on pro-democracy advocates — is now being used to describe Thailand’s leadership. In Myanmar, the reaction to the Thai military’s latest intervention was one of disappointment — from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) down. While President Thein Sein, like other Asean leaders, has been slow to make any official comment, politicians, academics and activists alike have expressed concern at Thailand’s latest coup and fears it could take the region further from democracy.
ALL TOO FAMILIAR
Even with their own difficulties, Myanmar journalists have expressed concerns at the new regime their Thai counterparts are operating under. Among the seven restrictions the Thai junta has placed on the media is an order to refrain from making any criticism of itself, which it calls the National Council for Peace and Order. As well as suspending several TV and radio networks, the junta has detained a number of journalists and called others in to explain its rules.
This has led to the somewhat ironic situation of the Myanmar Journalists Association coming out and issuing a statement urging greater media freedom in Thailand.
“Myanmar journalists have great sympathy and there is strong fellow feeling among them about the hardship currently being faced by Thai journalists as they experienced similar restrictions and persecutions under former governments,” the Myanmar Journalists Association said in a statement.
“It is not proper to arrest journalists and suspend some media, the ears and eyes of the nation, in such [an] important period, not only for the Thai Media industry, but for the rest of the neighbouring Asean countries,” it added.
“We would like to appeal earnestly to [the] Thai military government to restore the freedom of the press after lifting the restrictions on Thai journalists and ceasing arbitrary arrests if they are really desirous of bringing about genuine national reconciliation and safeguarding democracy.”
The political reaction in Myanmar to the Thai coup has been more mixed. As Myanmar holds the chair of Asean this year, and the body has a policy of non-intervention in member states’ domestic politics, President Thein Sein has been slow to react.
Other political figures have not been as reticent as the former general.
Ye Myint, a USDP MP known for being backed by the military, said the coup sent a bad signal to the region.
“I don’t agree with the coup, because they might be leading the way for other Asian countries,” Ye Myint said. “The army took over because they couldn’t tolerate it any more. The politicians couldn’t move forward and protests lasted for about six months but still there was no answer. The politicians should have been able to control the citizens but because they couldn’t the army came in.”
Another MP from the USDP, Hla Swe, told The Irrawady that “generally, a coup is not good”.
But the former lieutenant major tempered this by saying the Thai coup might result in a positive outcome. “The divide between the red and yellow shirts is so intense. Maybe the coup will be an answer for Thai politics. Let’s wait and see how soon the power goes back to the people. As the Asean chair, the [Myanmar] government will respond soon.”
National League for Democracy (NLD) executive committee member Nan Khin Htwe Myint made the point that, historically, coups have been very different in Thailand and in Myanmar.
“In Thailand, once the country’s situation returns to normal, the army gives power back to the people. In Burma [Myanmar], it’s been different,” she told The Irrawaddy.
When Aung Naing Oo first arrived in Thailand, he was in exile from a state on the verge of failure. Myanmar’s junta had cracked down violently on the Aug 8, 1988, protesters, with about 3,000 thought to have been killed in the month that followed. He lived in Thailand long enough to experience two military coups, in 1992 and 2006, but had devoted more of his attention to the troubling situation unfolding at home. The coups had seemed relatively bloodless, and Thai people appeared more willing to compromise than his countrymen.
Now an associate director of the Peace Dialogue Programme at the Myanmar Peace Centre in Yangon, and a teacher of an international programme at Chiang Mai University, he worries that Thailand’s cycle of coups and political division might prove to be more intractable than Myanmar’s.
Writing in The Irrawaddy last week, Aung Naing Oo explained that compared to the brutal regime of the former Myanmar junta, Thailand’s coups were short-lived and tended not to include fundamental changes to the political system.
“A general overthrew another general in power or the incumbent civilian prime minister and installed himself as head of the government. He would write a new constitution and a new election would be held in a short time. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy would remain largely intact. Such was Thailand’s see-saw [democracy] at play, alternated by the reintroduction of democracy and military regimes.”
However, Aung Naing Oo came to a stark conclusion: “Bloodletting may be on the way.”
“There had been warning signs all along. In exile, we were obsessed with our own politics and did not pay much attention to Thailand’s political woes. We did not listen to the warnings of the Thai professors at Chiang Mai University, where I still teach at an international programme. They told us that Myanmar would be easier to change because Thailand’s social and political divides were more deep-rooted than those of Myanmar. They said that it would be hard for Thailand to get out of vicious circles of coups. They may be right after all.
“The lessons in all this for Myanmar are plain for all to see. The reintroduction of democracy and the ongoing peace talks with armed ethnic groups have somehow provided the outlet for possible compromise. But we still have our own obsessions. And if Thailand’s woes are not something we can take lessons from, then I do not know what are. And for whatever reason, we must not let our guards down.”
While the EU and the US were quick to issue statements condemning Gen Prayuth’s May 22 coup, the subsequent restrictions on the media and the detention of political figures, Asean neighbours have been slower to react.
Nick Bisley from Australia’s La Trobe University explained in an opinion piece that this was most likely because of Asean’s policy of non-interference in internal political matters. Regardless of how the region’s leaders saw the situation, Asean would remain impartial.
“This is not because of some kind of coup fatigue,” he wrote. “Since its founding in 1967, non-interference in the domestic affairs of its members has been a fundamental principle of the grouping.
“The origins of this principle lie in the traumas of communist insurgencies of the early Cold War period and a jealous protection of sovereignty newly won from imperial powers.
“Although Asean has begun to explore forms of cooperation that nibble away at the edges of this, such as free trade agreements, it will strongly adhere to the idea that domestic political developments are purely a matter for the state concerned.”
Before the coup, on May 11, Asean foreign ministers took the opportunity to stand in Myanmar’s shiny new capital Nay Pyi Taw and “emphasise their full support for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing challenge in Thailand through dialogue and in full respect of democratic principles and rule of law”. When the coup was announced on May 22, Myanmar presidential spokesman Ye Htut was at a loss for how to respond.
MESSAGE FOR MYANMAR
Thailand’s coup has revived fears Myanmar’s fragile road to democracy could face sudden barriers.
The Myanmar military has been careful about relinquishing power and some fear it could return to the dark days of dictatorship if it felt threatened enough.
Win Htein, an MP for the opposition NLD, is one of those who worries the hard-fought gains could be lost.
“I am sad to learn about the coup, it could give the government [of Myanmar] an idea,” Win Htein told Spectrum. “I don’t know if a coup here will happen but it is dangerous. We have to carefully chose our agenda for the elections.”
Aung Naing Oo considers a coup in Myanmar “out of the question” despite continuing rumblings of political unrest, lately fought over the constitution.
“The military is happy and the rallies about the constitution are 100% peaceful.”
The military is represented by a quarter of the members in Myanmar’s parliament, and the leading USDP is heavily backed by the army. This large presence in parliament, which Union Election Commission chairman Tin Aye has explained as being for negotiation, also reduces the likelihood of a coup significantly.
Ye Myint, from the USDP, does not believe the army will take over again in Myanmar. “For the changes to the constitution, this is not a protest — they are showing their demand.
“I am more worried about people sabotaging the peace process [between the government and ethnic minorities].”