This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 2 May 2016.
When I first lived in Thailand, almost two decades ago, the prevailing attitude toward Myanmar was predictably dismissive. Myanmar was considered backward, destitute and despotic.
Thai school textbooks dwelt on old battles between mainland Southeast Asia’s duelling Buddhist civilisations. Young students quickly got the message about the wickedness of Myanmar kings and the brutality of their armies. There was little sympathy for the neighbour’s 20th-century woes.
Back then, “Pama” was still used as a schoolyard put-down. In Thai society, where hierarchy is prized above all else, Myanmar people were at the bottom of the pecking order, even lower than Khmer or Lao.
Where I lived, the only Myanmar people we ever met laboured on rubber plantations or as household staff. Others, of course, crewed fishing boats or did the hard work of tending prawn farms.
Myanmar workers were also starting to arrive in large numbers to do the factory jobs that Thais were reluctant to take on.
Back then, Thailand was riding high – reasonably democratic, effectively governed and primed for another surge of economic success.
When you put Myanmar and Thailand side-by-side there was, at least superficially, almost no comparison. Under the State Peace and Development Council, Myanmar was rightly derided for its disastrous human rights record and economic paralysis.
The news about Myanmar that drifted across the national frontier to Thailand was always negative. Most stories picked up common themes of drugs, war and dystopia.
In response, the Thai authorities kept a steady watch on their mountainous border, an interested party to the long-running conflicts of the Mon, Kayin, Kayah and Shan. For most Thais, the rest of Myanmar was a mystery, shrouded behind language and cultural differences that felt insurmountable.
In those days, Thailand was considered Southeast Asia’s great democratic beacon. Its 1997 constitution set a framework for government that was the envy of activists elsewhere in the region. Thais were proud that it looked as though their meddling military was back in the barracks for good.
What many people tended to ignore in the Thai case was the way that the influence of the military and the palace would persist long after regular elections were held.
In the past decade there have been two military coups in Bangkok. The country’s status as a democratic model for the region is now long forgotten. In its stead there is a greater understanding than ever for the unflinching commitment of the armed forces to secure its own interests and those of its backers in the royal family.
Thailand’s experience of democratic unravelling offers stark lessons in what can go wrong if elite powerbrokers elevate their own judgements above a popular vote. The economy is now sputtering, struggling for new momentum. Some analysts even talk of a “lost decade” from which a once-vibrant and energetic society will struggle to fully recover.
Today, the Thai people watch their words carefully, fretful about being branded subversive. Websites are blocked. Activists are kept on their toes. Those who find themselves on the wrong side of the political divide are invited in for questioning. In the toughest cases, re-education is prescribed.
These strictures are grimly familiar to those who suffered over recent decades under military rule in Myanmar.
How quickly things change. For a long time, Thailand provided safe haven and support to Myanmar’s democrats. The backstreets of Chiang Mai, Mae Sot and Mae Sai long echoed with Myanmar voices plotting a better future back home.
What is incredible about the recent reversal of political fortunes is that Myanmar is now significantly more democratic and transparent than Thailand. It just goes to show that political conditions are not set in stone. In a region of great flux and tension we need to keep an open mind about alternative futures.
In Thailand’s case, the people are waiting for the end of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s historic reign. He has been on the throne for almost 70 years and there is some trepidation about what happens next. Of course, the plotters of the 2014 coup will seek to exert their disciplining influence over the palace succession, but it is never easy to replace such a towering figure.
For Myanmar’s new democratically elected government there is a further lesson from Thailand’s turbulence. Put bluntly, even when democracy appears like it is consolidated, there is still a risk that the military will step back in. Nobody in Myanmar wants to consider this scenario right now. Why should they?
But the track record of failed democratic flirtation across the vastness of Asia suggests that only rarely do militaries remove themselves completely from the political fray. In most cases they retain some involvement, poised to re-assert themselves if conditions warrant.
Right now, Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s best democratic bet. It is an increasingly exciting place for ideas, business and culture. Such a happy situation is not inevitable. Just look at Thailand’s bleak prognosis and consider how it can all go so badly wrong.
Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala. His column appears in The Myanmar Times each Monday.