Myanmar’s Suu Kyi Courts Thai Junta in Reversal of Fortunes

  • Human rights icon, now building a reputation for pragmatism
  • Seeks to boost underdeveloped relations with Asean neighbors

Aung San Suu Kyi

Photographer: Nicolas Asfourin/AFP via Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi leaves democratically led Myanmar this week for military-ruled Thailand on an official visit that highlights the changing fortunes of the Southeast Asian neighbors.

Myanmar, now governed by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy after elections last year, is emerging from a half-century of military rule, while Thailand, Myanmar’s second largest trading partner after China with total trade last year valued at $8.1 billion, is struggling to find a path back to civilian rule after the army seized power more than two years ago.

QuickTake Myanmar's Transition

"The state visit will bring into relief an interesting reversal of political circumstances between the neighboring countries but will be largely pragmatic in tone," said Herve Lemahieu, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He said he expects talks to focus on trade, investment and migrant labor.

For an explainer on Myanmar’s transition to democracy, click here.

After decades of watching Thailand develop while it languished in isolation, Myanmar is now projected to have the fastest economic growth in Southeast Asia this year at 8.4 percent, while Thailand is forecast to have some of the slowest growth at 3 percent as it deals with the fallout of military rule and struggles to avoid the middle-income trap. Investors have taken note, with foreign direct investment in Myanmar surging to a record $9.4 billion in the fiscal year ended March, while Thailand saw an almost 70 percent plunge in applications last year.

"Thailand has taken the recent authoritarian Myanmar model, while they have taken Thailand’s heyday model of the 1980s," said Kobsidthi Silpachai, head of capital research at Kasikornbank Pcl in Bangkok. Myanmar was appealing due to its cheap labor, largely untapped consumer market and abundant natural resources, while in Thailand a lack of policy continuity was scaring off investors, he said.

Both countries are facing a constitutional conundrum, with Suu Kyi’s party campaigning to push the army out of politics and the generals in Thailand seeking voter approval in an August referendum for a draft document that would give them more power. For now Myanmar appears to have reached a working compromise between the army and civilians, while Thailand hasn’t.

"The Myanmar military has succeeded in co-opting Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD into a power-sharing relationship which is superficially democratic, but insulates the Myanmar military from actual civilian control," said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. "The Thai generals undoubtedly long for a Myanmar future."

Democratic Maturity

Suu Kyi, who holds several positions in the government including foreign minister, will be visiting Thailand in her capacity as state counselor, a post "above the president" that her government created in order to get around a constitutional ban on her holding that position. She wasn’t the first senior Myanmar leader since the election to be hosted by Thailand’s junta, however, an honor given to army chief Min Aung Hlaing last month.

"This may be a form of hedging but also reflects the Tatmadaw’s continued role in regional foreign policy and in Myanmar’s political economy," Lemahieu said, using the official name of the Myanmar armed forces. Military leaders in both Thailand and Myanmar "speak of a long-lasting role for the military in public life until ‘democratic maturity’ is achieved in their respective countries."

It is Suu Kyi’s second trip abroad since taking power in April, having first traveled with her hand-picked President Htin Kyaw to Laos, which currently holds the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The new leaders appear to be prioritizing ties with fellow members of Asean, despite Suu Kyi viewing the bloc with "antipathy for years of neglect of the Burmese democracy movement," Lemahieu said.

"While Suu Kyi’s ties with West are well established -- and her party has over the past five years has been successful in cultivating ties with Beijing -- relations with Asean countries are comparatively underdeveloped," Lemahieu said. "The new government has made it a priority to bridge a lag in high-level working ties."

Image Tarnished

Suu Kyi is expected to sign accords on labor and border crossings during her three-day trip. She is scheduled to pay a visit to a town hosting some of the millions of migrants from Myanmar who work in Thailand, as she did to a hero’s welcome on a visit in 2012, her first travel outside Myanmar in 24 years. She had previously refused to leave Myanmar, including when her husband was dying in England in 1999, fearing that she wouldn’t be allowed to return.

Suu Kyi’s fight against the junta in her country and her years under house arrest, which led to her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, broadened her international appeal as a "democracy icon." That image has taken a hit in recent years after she was criticized for not speaking out against the treatment of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities at home. Her visit with Thailand’s junta is unlikely to help.

"She has de-prioritized her earlier championing of universal freedoms and human rights in exchange for the preferences of power politics," Chambers said. "She is now a politician."

According to Sithu Aung Myint, a Yangon-based political analyst, Suu Kyi shouldn’t be criticized for her visit because it is only natural for her to travel to Thailand.

“I don’t see there being many problems in the relationship between Myanmar and Thailand, regardless of which type of government both sides have," he said. "Regardless of military or civilian government, we have do deal with our neighboring country."

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