Thai government struggles with Myanmar policy after Suu Kyi detention

BANGKOK – Thailand’s government is struggling to adopt a coherent stance on Myanmar following its military-ruled neighbour’s detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi more than a month ago, analysts say.

In a departure from his typical conciliatory tone, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra joined US President George W. Bush in issuing a strong call for Yangon to release her during a visit to Washington last month.

But the premier’s critics say he has now realised that this facade for international consumption needs to be balanced with some quick back-pedalling at home to keep relations with the ruling generals intact.

As a result, he targeted 1,500 political refugees who have fled previous crackdowns in Myanmar for sanctuary in Thailand: they must now relocate to camps along the border already holding some 125,000 refugees.

"Thailand doesn’t really have an overall policy on Burma… They’re quite pragmatic and reacting to different circumstances with different policies," said Chulalongkorn University political analyst Panitan Wattanyagorn.

"They have no clear policy based on clear principles but under these circumstances this may be the only way the government thinks is appropriate: a dual-track policy," he told AFP.

Panitan said refugee policy was likely altered in the interests of "trying to smooth out relations because there has been pressure by the Burmese to make sure the refugees do not cause problems relating to the embassy and personnel in Thailand".

Thailand said last month that Myanmar’s government warned its authorities of a possible plan by dissidents to take its diplomats in the Thai capital hostage to demand the Aung San Suu Kyi be given her freedom.

The democracy campaigner has been held under what the junta calls "protective custody" since attacks on her supporters by a government-backed mob on May 30.

Thaksin’s administration wants to placate Yangon for several reasons: constructive engagement is seen as key to Thailand wielding influence with the regime, while business interests want to protect lucrative cross-border trade.

Several senior Thai leaders are also known to have very close personal and financial ties to the generals.

"In the short term it may get by. But in the medium to long term it could present a conflicting stand and the international community may see Thailand as having no common foreign policy towards Burma," Panitan said.

Sunai Phasuk from regional rights network Forum-Asia linked Thaksin’s sudden policy change to Myanmar deputy foreign minister Khin Maung Win’s visit to Thailand last week.

"It often happens this way, that every time before a visit from the SPDC (ruling State Peace and Development Council) the Thai government carries out this aggressive rhetoric against pro-democracy groups," he said.

"The Thai government has created a climate of fear and uncertainty which in effect stops democracy groups taking any action to work for freeing Aung San Suu Kyi," Sunai said.

Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy magazine which deals with Myanmar affairs, said the Thai government’s new refugee policy was misguided and unfair on exiles who fled their homeland in fear for their lives.

"Thailand is trying to contain these people, but they must realise that there are problems in Burma that have to be solved," he said.

"You can’t put the blame on these underdogs… They appreciate that they’re here and it’s risky for them to go back home."

The dissident community, for whom Bangkok and Thai border towns have become a stronghold, have used Thailand to express their anger at Yangon before.

In October 1999, five armed rebels were involved in a day-long siege at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, in which nearly a hundred people were taken hostage, which was followed by another dramatic stand-off at a major hospital.

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