The Thai government prepared to fend off a “red shirt” army at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, mounting security measures designed to prevent a repetition of the embarrassing scenes that disrupted a similar Asean meeting in Pattaya.
This time, the red shirts behaved well, unlike Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, who called the fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra his “eternal friend” and compared him to Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander known for his provocative remarks, said: “Many people talk about Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, why not talk about Thaksin? That cannot be referred to as interfering.”
Was Hun Sen joking? Not really. The ill-considered remark from the head of the Cambodian government illustrated the quality of leadership we have in Asean.
Hun Sen’s remark was not only an insult to Th ailand but also to Burma. The Cambodian prime minister should be made fully aware that Thaksin and Mrs Suu Kyi have nothing at all in common. There are thousands of reasons for ruling out any comparison. But let’s look at just a few.
Mrs Suu Kyi is dedicated to the struggle for democracy and freedom in Burma. It won’t matter whether Mrs Suu Kyi becomes leader of Burma or not – today she is a symbol of change in Burma and remains a beacon of hope in spite of the attempts to belittle her by a repressive regime that has locked her up in her own home for years.
Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006. He skipped bail after an indictment on corruption charges and has since been living at various locations, including Nicaragua, Montenegro and the United Arab Emirates.
During his time at the head of the Thai government, the press in Thailand was muzzled and he launched a “war on drugs”, which killed more than 2,000 people who, if they had been legally dealt with and convicted, would have served prison terms.
Thaksin claimed that he and his government knew the situation in Burma very well because the two countries are immediate neighbours. Here are some facts.
Thaksin was a known friend of Burma’s military regime. His government courted the junta by offering loans, improving border trade and sending numerous delegations to Rangoon.
During the Asean summit in Bali, Indonesia, in 2004, Thaksin surprised many of the delegates by giving Burma his unconditional support and praising then prime minister and feared spy chief Gen Khin Nyunt’s “sincerity”. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo later told journalists that Thaksin defended Burma throughout the entire summit.
While other governments in the region – and worldwide – were voicing increasing criticism of the junta and championing speedy democratic change in Burma, Thaksin was seen to be defending the generals, investing in the country and promising piecemeal progress.
Thailand was then Burma’s third most important investment partner, exporting goods worth around US$1.26 billion (43 billion baht) annually.
Thaksinalso had his own business interests in Burma. In 2003, Shin Corp, the telecoms company owned until recently by Thaksin’s family, signed a deal with Bagan Cybertech, the internet service provider run by Ye Naing Win, son of disgraced prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt.
In 2004, Thaksin visited the ancient former Burmese capital Pagan to sell his Economic Cooperation Strategy, and promised Burma aid and support worth $45 million.
He also set his sights on what he called the “excellent prospects” of Burma’s tourism industry, proposing the construction of a ski resort in Burma’s northern Kachin State and the development of the unspoilt beaches of Arakan State.
The “Bangkok Process”, hosted by Thaksin’s government to advance democracy in Burma, fizzled out when Burmese representatives failed to turn up for a planned second session – a clear demonstration that even the Burmese generals didn’t count on him.
Back home, Thaksin’s administration cracked down on Burmese seeking economic and political refuge in Thailand, raising concerns about a conflict of interest and doubts about Bangkok’s ability to act as an honest broker in Burma’s political standoff.
Sadly, Thaksin’s government, by its attitude towards Burmese migrants and refugees living in Thailand, played the nationalism card in order to boost the prime minister’s popularity.
In early 2004, UN human rights envoy Hina Jilani visited Thailand and said: “Many of the Burmese human rights defenders feel very insecure with regard to their freedom of movement inside Thailand.” Not surprisingly, Ms Jilani received a cool reception in Bangkok.
Just before the 2006 coup, Thaksin stayed in his heavily-guarded home for a day because of a bomb threat, likening the experience to Mrs Suu Kyi’s enforced house detention.
He said he sympathised with Mrs Suu Kyi. What, for not being able to go shopping for a day?
So, once and for all, let’s make it clear to Hun Sen that Thaksin is no Suu Kyi.
Mrs Suu Kyi may have her shortcomings, but she has sacrificed much in her fight for democratic change in Burma. Her sacrifices include separation from her family and her enforced absence from the funeral of her beloved husband Michael Aris, who died of cancer in 1999 in London.
The fiasco caused by Hun Sen’s remarks at the Asean summit should have been an embarrassment to the Burmese delegation and Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein, who told his Japanese counterpart that the military regime would consider relaxing Mrs Suu Kyi’s house arrest terms, if she “maintains a good attitude”.
Thein Sein’s cynicism matches that of his boss, junta leader Snr Gen Than Shwe, who said in a letter published after Mrs Suu Kyi’s farcical trial in August that if she behaved “well” at her Inya Lake home under the restrictions imposed on her, she would be granted amnesty before her suspended sentence expired.
Astonishingly, Singapore’s foreign ministry reacted positively to Than Shwe’s gesture, saying that while it was disappointed at the guilty verdict it was nonetheless “happy that the Myanmar government has exercised its sovereign prerogative to grant amnesty by halving her [Mrs Suu Kyi’s] sentence and that she will be placed under house arrest rather than imprisoned”.
The world must be upside down, if not flat.
What does Than Shwe mean, for instance, by requiring Mrs Suu Kyi to behave well under house arrest?
Did Mrs Suu Kyi mismanage the economy and lead the resource-rich country into poverty?
Did Mrs Suu Kyi order the troops to kill Buddhist monks and activists on the streets or throw them into prison?
Did Mrs Suu Kyi order soldiers to kill or rape ethnic minorities?
At least, Hun Sen and Thein Sein can be credited with livening up the Asean summit, even though the grouping has no shortage of clowns.
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. http://www.irrawaddy.org