The military coup in Myanmar on Monday sent a political ripple to Thailand, its next door neighbour, not because of any immediate influx of political asylum seekers (yet) but for the similar fate they share.
For some Thais it’s like reliving a nightmarish coup and reflecting on how they fail to oppose the Thai junta.
Thailand’s latest coup, which was unlikely to be the last, took place in 2014 and junta leader Gen Prayut Chan-ocha, nearly seven years on, is still in power today, albeit as prime minister of an elected government after the elections in March 2019.
Thais, particularly those supporting democracy could not help but feel sorry, compare and consider what’s happening next door and what they can do about it.
By comparing, they realized that Burmese were quick to denounce Monday’s coup in drove, despite the more ruthless reputation of the Burmese military generals in the past compared to Thai generals like Prayut. Politicians, academics, doctors, nurses, stars, models and flight attendants protested while back in Thailand, after the May 2014 coup, too few people were willing to come out publicly to take a stance to denounce the coup led by Gen Prayut.
One acerbic and popular motto in Thai language spreading on social media since the latest coup in Myanmar went like: “If Thais don’t fight we will remain like slaves. If Burmese don’t fight they will remain like Thais”.
Be that as it may, some Thai activists have already initiated two protests against the Myanmar coup in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok as of press time.
It’s as if they are reliving the experience of the Thai coup that they failed to repel back home back in Bangkok in 2014 and now wanting to make amends by doing what they can so their brothers and sisters in Myanmar do not have to suffer the same fate. It’s almost like a surrogate battle. The gesture was welcomed by Burmese in Thailand who came out to join the protests.
Some Burmese, both in Thailand and Myanmar, also adopted the three-finger salute that Thai protesters use as a symbol of anti-junta resistance after the 2014 coup in Bangkok.
The past few days since the coup saw no shortage of statements issued by Thai organizations and groups to denounce the coup in Naypyitaw. Even grassroot groups like the Assembly of the Poor came up with one on Friday.
“Myanmar, like Thailand, has long been under the influence of the military. The military has interfered in national administration, directly and indirectly, for many years. It has dominated the direction of public policies, resulting in chronic problems of the country..,” part of the statement in English read.
It reads like a reflection on Thailand. This is why Thais who care for liberty and democracy feel empathetic and engrossed by what people in Myanmar are going through.
They realized that more dictatorships around Thailand cannot bode well for the struggle for genuine democracy in Thailand.
On Thursday night, I received a call from an exiled and elderly Thai activist Jaran Ditapichai, who formerly fought for democracy in Burma and Thailand.
The call was from one of the arrondissements, or districts, in Paris where Jaran lived as a political exile since the May 2014 coup when he fled the kingdom.
Jaran wasn’t an armchair activist by any chance. He spent six days in Burmese prison back in August 1998 for distributing leaflets attacking Burmese military dictators and calling for democracy there in front of Kaba Aye Pagoda in Yangon.
Jaran, who was among the group of 18 international activists arrested back then, expressed concerns not just for what’s happening in Myanmar but fears that the Thai military may stage yet another military coup in the not too distant future.
This would be done to consolidate its power in the face of threats from anti-government and monarchy-reform movements, particularly if they think they can get away with it.
Whether they think they can get away with it, Jaran told me, depends on how the Burmese junta in Naypyitaw can get away with it despite international outcries. The latest coup in Myanmar may presage what may occur in Thailand. A case of juntas of feather flock together.
Jaran was part of the old generation of Thais who actively supported the struggle for democracy in Burma in the past, particularly after the Aug 8, 1988 uprising in Burma which eventually led to a brutal crackdown by Burmese military against pro-democracy student protesters in Yangon and beyond. Many fled to Thailand in the months and years after the crackdown.
Fast forward to Feb 2021. Three decades on, it’s now up to young Thais to decide what kind of neighbours they would like to be, what kind of people-to-people relations they want to have with those in Myanmar facing military suppression. Will it be one of apathy, selfish ASEAN non-interference, or that of empathy and solidarity?
Will Thais simply sit and watch the suppression of political rights in Myanmar unfold and say it’s just like domestic violence next door so let them sort it out or will they do what they can to help stop the rape and abuses?
The past few days have been encouraging, but this is just the beginning as more are being arrested in Myanmar for taking a stance against illegitimate military rule.