One of the most important factors in the international failure to protect Burmese refugees lies in the nature of Thai-Burmese relations. The treatment of the refugees cannot be understood without an awareness of the political, economic and strategic factors governing the relationship and how they have changed over the past fourteen years.
Burma and Thailand are similar in many respects: they are about the same size geographically, although Thailand is much more densely populated, with a population of fifty-seven million, as opposed to Burma's forty-five million. They are both predominantly Theravada Buddhist countries, and both have significant ethnic and religious minorities, though Burma's population is more diverse. They share a 2,400-kilometer border, much of which has not been officially demarcated and some of which is in dispute, with both sides posting large military forces to defend their claims.20
Politically and economically, however, they are very different. While Thailand developed into a free-market, increasingly democratic state, Burma remained the highly centralized military state that it has been since General Ne Win took power in 1962, although a series of economic reforms announced in 1988 changed it from an isolationist economy to one increasingly open to foreign investment.
Following independence from Britain in 1948, Burma experienced a brief period of parliamentary democracy, during which time ethnic rebellions against the central government flared, although there were many parliamentarians and ministers of state from the ethnic minority groups. The Karen were the first minority to take up arms, almost immediately after independence. Like the other ethnic groups who subsequently did the same, the Karen wanted autonomy and a right to secede from the union.21 Relations between the central government and the ethnic minorityareas never healed, and by 1974, virtually all major ethnic minority groups were represented by organizations who had taken up arms against the Burmese military.
Between 1962 and 1988, the Thai army had more direct relations with the ethnic insurgents along the border than with the government in Rangoon. As far as Thailand was concerned, the ethnic minority armies were "a cheap and efficient light infantry supplement to the thinly-spread Thai Army," which prevented direct clashes with Burmese forces, while at the same time could be called upon during the 1970s to help in the fight against the Communist Party of Thailand.22 In 1988, however, everything changed. Burma's students led what became a nationwide pro-democracy uprising, protesting the twenty-six years of military rule and in particular the November 1987 demonetization that sent most families crashing into a financial crisis. On August 8, 1988, the country came to a standstill with a student-organized national strike, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets in all of Burma's cities and towns. As increasing numbers of public officials joined the protesters, the army felt its control slipping away. On September 18, it reestablished military rule in a bloody show of power that left an estimated 3,000 unarmed protesters dead. Thousands of students and protesters fled to ethnic minority-held areas in Burma's frontier regions, mostly on the border with Thailand. The newly formed State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) promised it would only hold power until such time as elections could be held and a civilian government installed. Crucially, the SLORC also announced an end to economic isolationism and the dawn of a free market economy.
Thailand's Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, then commander-in-chief of the army and foreign minister, was the first foreign leader to meet with the new government when he flew to Rangoon on December 14, 1988. The main reason for his trip was the negotiation of lucrative timber and fishing deals for Thai companies in Burma. In exchange, Chavalit gave the SLORC a commitment to repatriate student dissidents who had crossed into Thailand.23 Some of the forests Chavalit discussed in 1989 were still in rebel-held areas at the time, a clear sign that for the Thai army at least, the future of its relationship with Burma lay with the SLORC in Rangoon, no longer with the ethnic armies.
Chavalit's visit to Burma set the tone for the Thai attitude towards Burma: the country was seen as a potentially lucrative source of natural resources and opportunities for Thai companies (especially those linked to the Thai military) as Burma opened up to foreign investment and tourism. However, control of Burma-Thai relations was not a simple matter in Thailand. While the army and those politicians closely connected to it saw their future with a stable, if abusive, military government in Burma, civilian politicians and a growing number of concerned individuals were keen to support democratic reform. These tensions became more apparent following the May 1990 general election in Burma, which was overwhelmingly won by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by their detained general secretary, Aung San Suu Kyi. Months after the election, it became clear that the SLORC was not going to convene the parliament and hand over power to the elected representatives. A new wave of refugees fledto Thailand after a failed attempt by NLD parliamentarians to convene a parliament resulted in the arrest of over sixty parliamentarians and scores of NLD members, as well as over one hundred Buddhist monks. Ten parliamentarians who escaped arrest and arrived in Thailand in November 1990 formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB). Given the extent of support for the NLD in Burma (they had taken 82 percent of the seats in the election), Thai policy was more equivocal, offering tacit support and assistance to the NCGUB and others in case of a democratic victory in Burma.
For the first few years after the SLORC assumed power, this ambiguous policy seemed to work well for Thailand: it won international support for its protection of key Burmese dissidents, while at the same time it was able to forge closer economic links with Rangoon. In January 1993 the two countries formed a new "Thai-Burma Joint Commission" in a ceremony held in Rangoon by the two countries foreign ministers. The commission would not deal with military matters these were already handled by the longstanding Regional Border Commission but with commercial and political concerns, such as the opening of border crossings.24 This move was an important step towards realizing Thailand's new self-image as the central focus of a trade circle involving all its developing neighbors Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia and the "Golden Square Highway Network," a trade route that would link China and Thailand through Burma and Laos.25 But it was somewhat offset by a visit to Thailand in February 1993 by eight Nobel Peace Laureates in support of fellow laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The laureates, who included the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, were not granted permission to visit Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and instead met with Burmese dissidents and refugees in Thailand and made heartfelt press statements calling for sanctions against Burma.
The SLORC was outraged by Thailand's agreement to the visit, and for a while relations cooled. Perhaps as a conciliatory gesture, Thailand began to clamp down on the political activities of the Burmese dissidents, particularly the NCGUB government in exile and the main student group, the All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF).26
Over this period, new SLORC policies towards the ethnic minority armies also affected Thailand's attitude towards the refugees from their areas. In April 1992, the SLORC chairman was replaced by a new military leader, Gen. Than Shwe, who had made moves to present a more acceptable international image.27 Most significantly, under Than Shwe,the SLORC began to recognize the importance of the ethnic minority areas to the development of the nation.28 As early as April 1989, when the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) was collapsing in northern Shan state, the SLORC, fearing that disaffected CPB soldiers (who numbered around 10,000) might join forces with other ethnic minority groups, sought to negotiate cease-fire agreements with the different ethnic armies that emerged. The former CPB soldiers were given recognized territories within which they could continue to hold arms and were promised economic development in their areas and the chance to enter mainland Burma's economic system.29 These agreements proved a useful model for other parts of the country, where a military solution to the ethnic insurgencies was no longer seen as a viable option.
From September 1989, when the Shan State Army signed an agreement, until June 1995, when the New Mon State Army announced their cease-fire, a total of fourteen ethnic minority armies had entered into peace deals with the SLORC. By July 1998, the only groups which had not yet concluded cease-fire agreements with the Burmese government were the Karen National Union, various Shan groups that emerged after the surrender of drug warlord Khun Sa in January 1996, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, and the Chin National Front on the Bangladesh-India border. Where cease-fires existed, however, there were no further moves for a political settlement. Each cease-fire was negotiated on its own terms and depending on the strength of the army involved. Territory was allocated to the groups, with varying rights of access to those areas by the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army. Each group was also permitted to engage in business, including tourism, cross-border trade, and joint ventures with Burmese and in some cases even foreign companies, although again the terms on which these deals were made varied enormously. In addition, the SLORC had established a Ministry of National Races and Border Areas Development in 1993 whose responsibility it was to oversee development projects in the new cease-fire areas.
As the cease-fires took effect through 1994, Burma-Thai relations and bilateral trade improved, only to decline rapidly in 1995 as the Burmese government repeatedly accused Thailand of harboring dissidents and members of those ethnic groups which refused to sign cease-fires, particularly the Karen National Union (KNU).30 Thus, while agreements were made to develop new border crossings at Victoria Point (Burma)/Ranong (Thailand), Myawaddy/Mae Sot, and Tachilek/Mae Sai, these crossings were frequently closed by the Burmese, often without prior warning, whenever the SLORC or local authorities were angered by Thai actions, not just over the issue of harboring rebels but over outstanding border and trade disputes as well.
During 1995, after the Burmese army launched a major offensive against the KNU army that led to the fall of the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw, Thai-Burmese relations on the border deteriorated to an all-time low. Cross-borderraids by a breakaway faction of the KNU called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (see below), on both refugees and Thai nationals, the arrest and sometimes even killing of Thai fishermen illegally fishing in Burmese waters, and the killing of Thais illegally hunting in Burma, did nothing to dampen Thailand's desire for good relations with Burma.31 Border trade declined sharply, especially after June 1995 when a boycott of Thai goods was ordered in many Burmese towns, especially those bordering Thailand. Thai trucks and goods in Burma were confiscated, and Burmese traders were not permitted to import any Thai goods.32 At the same time, Thai companies found that they were no longer so welcome in Burma, and the economic deals between the two countries declined. While Thailand had been the largest investor in Burma among the countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in August 1994, with projects worth US$211.14 million, by the end of 1995 it had been overtaken by Singaporean and Malaysian investors.
As a direct result of these measures by Burma, which were in part intended to force Thailand to cease giving temporary asylum to ethnic minority refugees, Thailand's policy towards this group changed dramatically. Thai authorities pressed the ethnic minority armies into accepting cease-fire deals with the SLORC, and the refugees became pawns used by all sides in the negotiations. Thai authorities had periodically refouled Mon refugees, but once the Mon army had signed its agreement with the SLORC in June 1995, they repatriated the Mon en masse, ostensibly because the lower level of actual fighting meant the area was now "safe." When camps housing Karen refugees were attacked in 1996, Thailand did little to provide security and refused to move the camps out of the reach of the raiders. Then, as a major offensive began against the remaining KNU troops in southern Burma in February 1997, refugees fleeing the fighting were repeatedly refouled. From June 1997 onwards a new policy was implemented by the Thai army to permanently close the border to all new arrivals, thus effectively denying asylum to all those fleeing Burma.
In addition, Thailand also offered support to the SLORC in the international arena, by assisting in its attempts to join ASEAN from 1993 onwards. These efforts succeeded in July 1997, when Burma was admitted as a full member. But by then, the looming Asian financial crisis had begun to break in Thailand and quickly spread to all ASEAN countries. Suddenly Burma was no longer the golden investment opportunity for expanding ASEAN companies but an economic and political liability that needed to be taken in hand.33
By November 1997, both Thailand and Burma had new governments. In Thailand, the SLORCs ally, Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, was replaced as Prime Minister by Chuan Leekpai after a no-confidence vote in Chavalit brought about by the economic crisis.34 Chuan headed a coalition which expressed support for human rights and adetermination to forge a closer relationship with the army, in which the civilian leadership of the democratic government would have the upper hand. In Burma, the SLORC was unexpectedly replaced by the new State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Although the top four positions in the SPDC remained the same as in the SLORC, fourteen government ministers were sacked and replaced by younger army officers.35 The move indicated that the government considered that since law and order had been restored ignoring the SLORC's pledge to transfer power to an elected civilian government once that objective had been achieved the new government was committed to forging peace and development in the country. Soon after, several former ministers, including the ministers for tourism and forestry, were placed under house arrest for excessive corruption.
The new Chuan administration, with Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuan, took a new attitude towards the Burmese government and towards the refugees on Thai soil.36 In February 1998, the government invited UNHCR to give a presentation on its work with a view to considering a UNHCR presence on the Thai/Burma border. When refugee camps were attacked in March, the government immediately responded with démarches to the Burmese embassy. In April, the two governments agreed to begin border demarcations to finally settle the disputed areas.37 The Thai government nevertheless took no steps to prevent the Thai army, often a power unto itself, from carrying out its own policy of keeping the border closed to new arrivals. It also became clear in further discussions with UNHCR in May that whatever role UNHCR would finally be permitted, it would be very narrowly defined and restricted to include only those persons who fell within the Thai definition of "temporarily displaced persons," that is, those already in established camps who had fled direct fighting.20 Hill 491 near Doi Lang in Thailand's Mae Hong Son province, the border between the Burmese town of Myawaddy and Thailand's Mae Sot, and three small islands at the mouth of the Pakchan River near Thailand's Victoria Point, are but three areas under dispute. 21 By 1988 these claims to secession had been dropped by all the ethnic armies, except the Karenni National Progressive Party. Since then, the ethnic minorities have called for equal rights under a federal constitution. 22 Bertil Lintner, "Thailand: Building New Bridges with a Former Foe," and Robert Karniol, "Thailand Ends Backing for Rebel Groups," Jane's Defence Weekly, September 9, 1995. 23 The timber deals were especially important, since a seemingly unlimited supply of wood in Burma enabled Thailand to impose a moratorium on the felling of its own hardwood trees. There was strong domestic pressure in Thailand at the time to cease logging because of the severe flooding caused by excessive deforestation. The possibility of deals with the SLORC, which would far surpass those already existing between Thai companies and the ethnic armies, was an opportunity not to be missed to keep Thailand's timber mills working. In addition, given that the SLORC was desperate for foreign exchange, due to the international aid embargo on the country since the 1988 killings, Chavalit was able to secure extremely good terms for Thai companies. In fact the deals were so good that by 1993 the SLORC had revoked all licenses to Thai companies, complaining not only of the cheap rate they were getting for the logs but also that the companies were taking more than their concessions allowed. For the SLORC, the deals were worth US$112 million annually, according to Bertil Lintner in Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (Colorado: Westview Press) 1995, p. 290. Lintner quotes Burmese government sources from February 1989. 24 "Burmese Foreign Minister Due to Sign Accord," The Nation, January 19, 1993. 25 On June 28, 1993, Burma, China, and Thailand approved the Burma section of two four-lane highways, connecting Chiang Rai in Thailand to Ta Lua in China, via Kengtung. The second was to go from Chiang Khong in Thailand to Migong in China via Huey Sai in Laos. 26 On June 16, 1993 an NCGUB minister, U Hla Pe, disappeared after leaving a political meeting. His body was found by the Thai police some months later. He had been shot in the head. No one was ever charged for his murder, although the NCGUB blamed SLORC intelligence. In December 1993 Thailand refused re-entry to a delegation of political dissidents from Burma, including the prime minister of NCGUB, Dr. Sein Win. They were forced to remain in the United States, where they had been lobbying at the United Nations General Assembly. To explain their actions, the National Security Council (NSC) chairman Charan Kulawanijaya said, according to a Reuters dispatch of December 16, 1993, "Thailand is supporting the Burmese government plan for national reconciliation. To issue visas to these people means to encourage them to continue fighting." Five years later, no members of this group have been permitted to return to Thailand. 27 On coming to power, Than Shwe announced the release of all political prisoners not considered a threat to the state. Under his leadership, the SLORC also made renewed efforts to encourage foreign investment and opened up new sectors to privatization, including the financial sector. 28 Much of Burma's natural resources, from gems to oil to teak, are located in ethnic minority areas, some parts of which were under rebel control. In addition, the SLORC needed free and permanent access to border crossings to capitalize on international trade. In 1988, many of these crossings, to Bangladesh, India, and China, as well as Thailand, were in the control of rebel armies, which relied on the taxation raised through what were black market trade routes; by 1998 all of them were in the control of the Tatmadaw (the Burmese army). 29 For details on the collapse of the CPB see Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt, chapter 9. The groups which signed cease-fires were: the United Wa State Army, led by Chao Ngi Lai; CPB "101 zone" led by Ting Ying, which became the New Democratic Army; the Kokang led by the Pheung Kya-shin and Pheung Kya-fu, who formed the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA); and CPB "815 zone," led by Lin Minqxian, which became the MNDAA (eastern Shan state). All of these groups were, by July 1998, major producers and traffickers of narcotics including heroin and amphetamines. 30 At a press conference on May 9, 1995, SLORC spokesman Col. Kyaw Win stated that the border problems with Thailand were "a direct consequence of Thailand harboring and cooperating" with groups opposed to Rangoon. He warned that "continued harbouring of such elements will precipitate similar problems." See "Burma Border Problems Laid at Thailand's Door," Bangkok Post, May 10, 1995. 31 In March 1994 it was reported in the Thai press that some 200 Thai fisherman had been killed by the Burmese navy in a three-month period, most of whom died when their boats sank under fire. Similar killings continued throughout the next year, and at the end of 1995 it was reported that over 500 Thai fishermen were in Burmese jails. 32 Reuters, "Thai Products Face Burmese Boycott Call," June 20, 1995; Reuters, Burma punishes traders defying boycott Thai call, July 20, 1995, which reported that Burmese selling Thai goods in a Burmese market were sent to do forced labor. 33 This was reflected in the decision by two ASEAN member states to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi during state visits to Rangoon. The first, Foreign Secretary Domingo Saizon of the Philippines, met Daw Suu on October 23, 1997; Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi met with Daw Suu on March 13, 1998. In April 1998, no ASEAN states assisted Burma in advocating a weakened resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, nor did they object when a strongly worded condemnation of Burmas human rights practices was tabled and passed the commission without a vote on April 21. 34 Chuan had been prime minister from 1993 to 1995 and was not then known for taking a strong position to assist refugees. In part this was because of the power of the Thai military at the time, whose influence on theborder had been greatly reduced by 1998. 35 For an analysis of the implications of the cabinet changes, see Bertil Lintner, Velvet Glove, The Far Eastern Economic Review, May 7, 1998. 36 See Kavi Chongkittavorn, Reinventing Ties with Burma, The Nation, April 13, 1998. 37 Efforts to Map out Burmese Border Begin to Take Shape, Bangkok Post, April 9, 1998.