Even under the notorious principle of “non-intervention” imposed by the ASEAN community, the Thai government still can – and should – exert its diplomatic influence to end the bloodshed in their neighboring country.
The Thai public could only watch in horror as footage of the deadly crackdown in Myanmar made its way to our living rooms and mobile phones.
Just on Wednesday alone, 38 people were confirmed to have been killed by the Burmese security forces, who appeared intent on crushing the resistance to the Feb. 1 coup with unchecked violence.
At least 50 civilians, most of them peaceful protesters, have perished under the hands of the Myanmar military and police since the military takeover.
And that’s in just a month. Observers fear the orgy of killings that horrified the world is just the beginning of greater tragedies to come.
Also worrying is the arrest of The Associated Press correspondent Thein Zaw, apparently just for doing his job as a reporter. He’s one of five members of the media to have been charged so far in Myanmar for “spreading fake news,” an offense that could see them jailed for up to three years.
As a media partner who syndicates wire stories from The Associated Press, we join the calls with many media organizations in Myanmar and from all over the world to demand for Thein Zaw’s immediate release, and we urge the Myanmar authorities to cease its suppression of the media.
We’re under no illusions that our voice would matter much to the Myanmar coup regime. But we are not alone in the show of solidarity with media professionals in Myanmar either.
Almost immediately after the military takeover unfolded in Naypyidaw, the Thai Journalist Association released a statement affirming its support to its counterpart in Myanmar, and stressing that “any use of violence is unacceptable.”
“We would like to express concerns about the safety of members of the media in case of violent situations, and also the limitation of freedom of the press during this period,” the Thai Journalist Association wrote. “However, we hope that all the people are safe and the journalists are still able to perform their duties professionally without any harm or threat.”
Unfortunately, the reality in Myanmar took a turn for the worse, prompting the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand to voice its dismay at the deteriorating civil rights under the regime.
“With state media in Myanmar now parroting only the propaganda of the new regime, it is essential that independent media be supported and protected as far as possible. The FCCT urges other governments and agencies engaging with the regime in Myanmar to ensure that they prioritise the safety of journalists in their discussions,” the statement said.
“Our colleagues in Myanmar have shown great courage and ingenuity in ensuring they can broadcast confrontations between the authorities and the civil disobedience movement, giving us a far fuller picture of events there than was possible in the past. We stand in solidarity with them as they try to work in the most difficult and dangerous conditions.”
It’s also safe to say the general mood of the Thai people toward the escalating violence in Myanmar is of concern and revulsion – as is evident in conversation taking place everywhere around Thailand, from outrage on social media platforms to the uncles muttering over newspapers together in coffeehouses.
Yet the government of Thailand has been markedly silent and unwilling to condemn the killings taking place right next door.
On one hand, their inaction is understandable. The imaginary community of ASEAN is barely held together by their principle of non-intervention in domestic politics – even in the face of severe human rights violations.
But the crisis unraveling in Myanmar is on a scale unseen in decades, and it poses a present-day challenge to ASEAN member states like Thailand to rethink their lukewarm approach.
Thailand has already hosted an informal dialogue to steer the conflict toward a peaceful resolution. The effort was commendable, and the Thai government can do so much more. Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are reputed to possess a greater understanding of human rights and statecraft than any other Thai state agency. The ministry should dedicate its diplomatic reach to convincing the Burmese state actors to reconsider their doomed path.
As a close neighbor to Myanmar, Thailand is blessed with many instruments in its arsenal that can be deployed to pressure the Myanmar generals into stopping the bloodshed. All options should be considered critically by the foreign ministry.
This is a matter of moral duty as much as realist necessity – it would not serve Thailand’s national interests if its neighbor collapses into anarchic violence. If the bloodshed in Myanmar spirals into a full blown slaughter, many will be forced to flee the country en masse, seeking refuge elsewhere and destabilizing the region even further. And that’s just one scenario.
Surprisingly enough, it was left to Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to break ranks from the collective silence in the ASEAN region. In a recent media interview, Singapore’s leader rightly called out the violence perpetrated on Myanmar civilians.
“To use lethal force against civilians and unarmed demonstrators, I think it is just not acceptable,” PM Lee said. “That is disastrous not just internationally, but disastrous domestically.”
It should have been Thailand, as Myanmar’s closest neighbor in ASEAN, to deliver the stern remark, which may have had an even greater impact on the Burmese junta – a wakeup call that Thailand will no longer stand idly by or turn a blind eye to the Tatmadaw’s atrocities on unarmed protesters.
PM Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government may have failed at upholding democracy at home, but he can still make a difference for the people of Myanmar. Gen. Prayut is no champion of human rights, but he can still earn an honored place in history if he chooses to act and tells the Myanmar government to do the right thing for once.