Thai PM and Myanmar junta chief stay engaged via back channels

  • Thailand’s pro-military government has tapped its back-channel contacts with Myanmar’s armed forces to shape Bangkok’s diplomatic options following the turmoil and bloodshed in its neighbor since the Feb 21 coup in Naypyitaw.
  • Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha tipped this element of Bangkok’s approach by skipping the recent summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders in Jakarta. He sent Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai instead for the ASEAN gathering convened to chart a regional response to Myanmar.
  • Prayuth seemingly missed his chance to engage with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military chief and junta leader, who flew to the Indonesian capital for the 24 Apr 21 summit — his first overseas trip since the power grab.
  • But criticism of Prayuth prompted this retort from a confidant: “The P.M. does not have to attend the ASEAN summit to engage with [Min Aung Hlaing].”
  • Pressed to elaborate, the source in the prime minister’s inner circle told Nikkei Asia that Prayuth benefits from direct links cultivated by members of Thailand’s army over the past decade with counterparts in the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is called.
  • “We have maintained back channels, and [Prayuth and Min Aung Hlaing] can communicate without having to meet,” he said. “They have talked since the coup.”
  • “They know how to engage,” he added, but the source declined to reveal the substance of their discussions.
  • This chemistry between the two militaries has not been lost on veteran Thai diplomats who engaged with a broad range of Myanmar’s political players prior to the putsch.
  • “The two militaries think alike as comrades-in-arms, and they can understand each other well,” said Kobsak Chutikul, a former Thai ambassador. “The Thai and Myanmar militaries have a lot of contact at many levels — local commanders, border commanders, regional commanders and even at the highest level, the central command.”
  • The Thai military traditionally calls the shots in shaping the Southeast Asian kingdom’s foreign policy toward its immediate neighbors. But Min Aung Hlaing also was the first Southeast Asian military leader to reach out to Prayuth after he staged the 2014 coup, praising him for the putsch. Two years earlier, Min Aung Hlaing had sought the blessing of Thai Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda — a former army chief, former prime minister and president of the royal advisory Privy Council — to become his “adopted son.”
  • Thailand’s personal ties with Min Aung Hlaing were elevated to new heights in 2018 when he was awarded the country’s Knight Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, a royal decoration normally given to military officers and civilians who have been recognized for distinguished service. It was bestowed “in honour of the support he has shown for the Thai military,” the Bangkok Post, an English-language daily, reported at the time.
  • Min Aung Hlaing’s bonds with Thai military counterparts reflect the dramatic change in relations between the two neighbours, once marked by historical animosities, deep suspicion and border skirmishes.
  • Bangkok’s security policy toward Myanmar over a decade ago was illustrated by its “buffer zone” strategy, which allowed armed ethnic rebels in Myanmar fighting separatist wars against the Tatmadaw to operate along the Thai border. Tension was rife along the border at the time, said a security analyst, with the ethnic fighters serving as useful proxies for the Thai military.

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